Thu May 8, 2003

Copycats

Looking at my referrer logs, I find an uptick in people who find this blog through searches like these:

  • marx human nature
  • emile durkheim’s main themes
  • sociology exam simmel stranger
  • weber vocation
  • what is the protestant ethic?

This is because right around now, all over the country, undergraduates are writing final papers or taking final exams in sociological theory courses like the one I teach.

Some of those searching are doing legitimate research and some are looking for material to plagiarize. I don’t know what the relative sizes of those groups are, of course. I usually get at least one open-and-shut case of plagiarism each semester.

Like hepatitis, plagiarism comes in several varieties.

  • Google Plagiarism. Find a paper or discussion online. Pros: Copy. Paste. Done! Cons: Professor may also know about Google.
  • Paper Mills. Online databases of papers, either for free or paid. Free ones have the same pros and cons as Google. Paid ones may provide better papers, but cost money. Parallel services for faculty like Plagiarism.org may catch you out.
  • The File Cabinet. Located in the Fraternity House or equivalent. Pros: instant library of papers. Cons: someone has to write them in the first place. Possible need to co-ordinate submissions.
  • The Library. Pros: thousands of obscure books on your topic, with obscure paragraphs to copy. Cons: Faculty may have read books. Not sure where the library is.

Few things annoy faculty more than plagiarism, particularly when it’s poorly executed. (That doesn’t mean well-executed copying is better, just that it’s a different sort of insult.) Because people who plagiarize are usually also poor students, they tend not to realise that it’s obvious when a paragraph of bumbling prose suddenly rises from its own ashes to become lucid and flowing, or even just moderately coherent.

The most annoying sort of plagiarism is the low-expectations variety. To my mind, plagiarism ought to be about copying something really good in order to get a better grade. But for many students, it’s just about turning in something that will help them scrape by. Plagiarism is hardest to spot if the student’s highest ambition is a C and so doesn’t mind copying something that’s already a poor piece of work. That’s why the File Cabinet method is the most insidious variety. It’s hard to spot (the work’s already bad) and hard to prove (it’s not published or online).

Thanks to the Lazy Web, though, I think most plagiarism is now Google-based. This gives me a fighting chance. Because I have a blog, it also lets me contribute to the base of copyable texts. Perhaps some of my posts—like this one, for instance—have already been cannibalized by someone, somewhere. My ambition, naturally, is to have a student quote my own words back to me without attribution in a final paper. That’s an office hour I’d look forward to.