Saturday, November 25, 2006

Most foolish plagiarism ever...

(Sistine Chapel, 1535-1541)
Plagiarism: putting oneself in another's skin?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I began to correct a student paper titled:
"A Comparative Study of Structure and Theme in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
Oddly enough, it has the same title as a journal article by a scholar named Yang Hyun-Chul, which raised my suspicions since my student has an entirely different name.

Now, this could be coincidence. Expressions like "Comparative Study" and "Structure and Theme" can be quite common, and lots of folks must have compared Beowulf to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Still, that's quite a lengthy sequence of words for an exact match.

Let's look more closely. Here's a passage from the paper's body:
I think according to Frye's theory of nature-myth (Frye 429), that the inner structure of four parts in the Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reflects the seasonal cycle of the year, and the organic cycle of human life. So I will describe these four parts which are referring to the myth, symbols and meaning.
This is not a perfectly constructed sentence, but it looks to be well above the level attained by most students in my classes and best fits the language level of a scholar using English as a second language (hence that superfluous definite article in "the Beowulf").

So ... I think that my student has plagiarized this article.

But I'd hate to risk making a false accusation on such a serious issue, so to be sure about my suspicions -- which I assume you share -- let's compare the sentence quoted above with the paper's thesis statement, for I require students' papers to have a thesis statement with a logical form that I've specified (A --> B b/c A --> C), thus making very likely that the student would have to compose at least this one small part of the paper. Here's what my student wrote:
The two poem's themes or motifs are combined to produce a work of impressive organic unity because two poems have heroic ideal, Christian humiliation and chastity.
This is a very poor sentence, much poorer than the one quoted earlier. Though it starts out well enough, it deteriorates toward the end. I think that my student borrowed the first half and simply appended the because-clause: "because two poems have heroic ideal, Christian humiliation and chastity." This because-clause clearly has a different style and makes far more mistakes than the sentence's first half, which only gets the apostrophe in "poem's" wrong (and which might simply be a typo). One could quibble that "produce a work" should be "produce works," but we're surely meant to understand the meaning as "produce a work in each poem."

At any rate, the because-clause would need a bit of reworking to bring it up to the stylistic level of the sentence's first half. Let's try reworking it (also correcting "poem's"):
The two poems' themes or motifs are combined to produce a work of impressive organic unity because they express the heroic ideal along with Christian values of humility and chastity.
This sounds better, but it's a very weak thesis statement since the reason provided in the because-clause is insufficient to support the claim made in the sentence's first half. Also, the because-clause is wrong about "humility" in Beowulf, which is not a poem that extols Christian humility -- or humility of any sort, for that matter.

Consequently, I have no doubt that this paper is plagiarized and that the student deserves an "F."

Hint to student: At least alter the title the next time that you plagiarize an entire article.

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At 1:00 PM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...


HJH, you won't survive at most American universities. From what I read, professors can't flunk students. Students don't even cotton much to a gentleman's "C" these days.

The best you could do is emulate Harvey Mansfield and give out the A or B grade plus an "ironic grade."

Still, I say, "Bravo!" to you and "Boo!" to the plagiarist.

At 1:53 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, I've come to expect gross, blatant plagiarism, and the students' first drafts get slammed hard (lots of Fs and Ds), but they rewrite for a second draft, and I grade on improvement, so I have the best of both worlds -- realistic grading and good essays.

The students have the fear of God put into them, but they end up happy ... and even learn some things.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:37 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

I don't which schools CIV was speaking of, but where I have just graduated, they are very strict. When I began school again a few years back, there had been some recent scandals with journalist faking and plagiarizing stories. It was my understanding, because of those scandals and the recent events of Enron and other corporations, the school began to stress ethics more. The university required every syllabus to have their policy about plagiarism and instituted an ethics class for every discipline. The professor in one business writing class held lengthy discussions of what exactly is plagiarism and explained in much detail how to do citations. We also got online help for how to use citations. I admit as a student who doesn't write very well, the citations were a pain in the but. I do understand the necessity for them. The penalty, "F" for the first offense and "F" for the course on the second. In some cases the student could be referred to a disciplining committee to determine suspension or expulsion.

At 12:24 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

hathor, one school is Harvard. See the Harvey Mansfield link above.

HJH, some high schools (and maybe others) are requiring students to submit papers to The Wash Post has run stories about a protest at a HS where students claim the policy violates their intellectual property rights. I'm following that story, as the students do seem to have a point.

One other semi-related point. My own dear student has Googled some teachers' writings and discovered overly generous "borrowing" without citation. What an example.

At 8:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, your school has done a fine thing, and as for your writing, it also seems fine to me.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, Google is going to be the bane of plagiarists everywhere.

Thank God.

As for your "own dear student," are you referring to a child of yours ... or a student of yours?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:29 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

My own little one, not a student. Well, not so little any more -- a high schooler.


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