From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

December 22, 1996: Plagiarism and the Web

On a list that was forwarded to me recently I found the following query. (I've corrected the spelling, but since the writer is faculty, I've left the sometimes dense, perhaps simply awkward, sentence structure intact.):


On the surface of it, that post is a logical request. Certainly the internet offers students a vast supply of materials from which they can steal in order to prepare papers that they have to hand in. And yes, the (web) inexperienced college professor might find it threatening that students have access to all this material. But actually, the problem really isnt that difficult to solve. In reaction to the statement that: "I can almost hear them saying They'll NEVER know which website I got this from....", one responder noted: And of course that's very true. If a student is bright enough to find an article on a subject on the web and then turn it in for an assignment as his/her work, one would think that a professor could think of a couple of key words that would find the same article. Another responder noted that if a sentence seemed suspect, copying that sentence into a search engine and conducting a search on it would almost definitely find the source. Yes, students have a way of being more creative than their professors, but even a professor with limited web experience should be able to figure out how to do these things.

One of the more creative student-initiated projects is an online paper-mill. Paper-mills are nothing new. They were around long before the web, and will probably survive it as well, but there is something original in a paper-mill that's located on the web. Industrious plagiarizers will probably still surf the web for material they can copy, but lazier students can simply look for re-cycled term papers.

Put rather simply, a paper-mill is an off-campus situated filing cabinet that stores student papers. Usually for a price students can retrieve a paper from the mill and hand it in for their own assignments. A bit of editing or doctoring doesnt hurt, though on the whole when a student uses a paper-mill, meaning that s/he isnt able to devote the effort to write his/her own paper, s/he's not particularly inclined to devote much time to editing and revising any paper s/he can get his/her hands on. One respondant to the query raised a very simple point:

Another also didn't seem particularly distrubed: Still, probably because the internet itself remains such a hot topic, on-line paper mills have generated their fair share of excitement. Perhaps the best known of these sites (a few exist) is School Sucks ( School Sucks offers its database of papers free of charge, though a similar site requires leaving a paper of your own (how do they know it's yours?) in exchange. And part of the site is an interesting article entitled: Plagiarism Sucks, with the significant subtitle: How to use the resources on SCHOOL SUCKS (and elsewhere) to write papers and not get into trouble.

The article is either an honest attempt to explain the dangers and problems of plagiarism, or it's a sort of legalistic cover needed to keep the site out of trouble. Either way, it raises some good, if far from original, points about plagiarism. According to the article, plagiarism "sucks" because it:

Perhaps it was to be expected that the SCHOOL SUCKS site would create quite a stir in the academic community. In June and July of this year a debate raged on an academic listserv discussion group that totalled 226 letters (from perhaps fifty participants). The correspondance is archived at The academicians writing to the list represented the entire spectrum of opinions, ranging from the incensed to the amused. A couple of correspondants wrote that their job should be to give assignments that make plagiarism irrelevent. One participant commented: and that really is perhaps the most important aspect of the entire debate, because the issue of student plagiarism is really only the tip of an iceberg. The bigger issue is how the internet is forcing us to change our perspectives on the "ownership" of intellectual property.

Carolyn Dowling, from Australian Catholic University, in a fascinating essay Whose words are they? Some aspects of the ownership of textual material in electronic environments quotes an E. Theisin, author of "Writing in Context":

Another well thought out treatise on the changing nature of copyright is What Matters Who Writes? What Matters Who Responds? Issues of Ownership in the Writing Classroom by Andrea A. Lunsford (and associates) from the Ohio State University. In addition to being an attempt at a hyper-textual presentation (of what was originally a keynote lecture), this article examines many of the ways in which internet access and postmodernism coincide, forcing a reexamination of how we relate to authorship and ownership of texts. Lunsford examines the issue of plagiarism, noting that one broad study conducted at her university found that undergraduates quite comfortably "used" the materials of others in ways that traditionally would be considered plagiarism, but was done quite "innocently" on the students' part. She notes that "This dissertation study suggests that the re in research is highly operative for many students and that they are in some ways perhaps more comfortable with this sort of collective production than we (faculty) are."

Among Lunsford's conclusions is the need to relate differently to the entire manner in which student achievement is measured:

Dowling and Lunsford are at perhaps the academic vanguard of a rethinking of the question of ownership of intellectual property. Though they express a bit of discomfort with their position, they seem to realize that an academic rethinking of the attitude toward plagiarism is called for. But the academic vanguard looks more like a rearguard when compared to some of the ideas floating around the internet. Utopian Plagiarism, Hypertextuality, and Electronic Cultural Production is the title of a chapter of a book The Electronic Disturbance written by the Critical Art Ensemble which defines itself as "a collective of five artists of various specializations dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics, and critical theory". Their text reads like a manifesto: And they add: The last part of that sentence seems a contradiction to the gist of the argument. Sensing this, our authors add: And as though to prove that even the "Utopian Plagiarism" arguments are a reactionary conspiracy against the true revolution, to show that such an anachronism isn't acceptable, here's a short (though much too long) segment of the Neoism Manifesto that deals with Plagiarism. (I admit, I have no idea, before or after reading these pages what Neoism is.) That being rather difficult to decipher (to say the least), the author has given us a link to an additional page that among other things contains the following, more concise, statement: If a professor ever accuses you of plagiarism, just read him that to let him know what you think.

At least one professor, in the Department of Software Engineering at the Johannes Kepler University of Linz, Austria, has a web page with his policy on plagiarism. He's against it, but he's collected some nice quotes on the subject along the way to stating his policy. It's worth a look.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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