March 3, 2006

Warning on plagiarism software

For anyone who teaches at a university contracting with Safe Assignment's plagiarism-detection service, please note that those of us at USF have had several serious problems with the service in the past week, from the failures to pass off cookies smoothly from Blackboard to Safe Assignment's server to far more serious problems, a corrupted database for one of my courses (where some of the students were sent the papers and my feedback for other students [and, yes, I double-checked that I hadn't made the mistake myself]) and the failure of Safe Assignment's software to do any checking before pronouncing papers perfectly clean (0% overlap, even when there's a bibliography with titles you can find online). I hope these problems are fixed soon, because it wouldn't be a good thing for Turnitin to have a monopoly.

Back in the old days, before plagiarism-checking services, back when we only had Google, I had to recognize the style of a passage as not quite fitting the rest of it and, lo and behold!, often enough (but not always) there was plagiarism. Back to that, I suppose. I've had a few cases of outright internet plagiarism over the years, and in one case, the student looked completely dumbstruck, as if he weren't aware that the paper was plagiarized. So, after he meekly exited my office and the course, I tried to figure out why he had that deer-in-a-headlight look. Maybe because it was ... someone else had written it? So I speculated on the honor of thieves and wrote a mediocre song about why such things may occur.

I still regret three cases in my years of teaching when students did not get what they earned as a result of plagiarism. One was my fault—a student had plagiarized, and I foolishly decided to talk to the student before deciding whether it was a failure on the paper or on the course. Then what the she told me was that, as in my speculation in the case described above, someone else (not a student at the institution) had written that passage. Well, right. Yeah. If so, that's awful and the student really should've been kicked out of the program. But was that true, and would a panel of my peers want to punish a student for volunteering such damning information herself? I decided that a panel might not side with me and went only with failure on the paper (and the student passed the course). Wrong decision, and as a result I've since decided on consequences based on the observable facts rather than talking to students, so I'm not put in that position again. The other cases involved two students at one of my first teaching spots who each plagiarized for two paragraphs in an open-book final exam, and the hearing officer for one student—a housing official at the university—decided that wasn't too much, and failure for the course was too harsh a punishment. My colleagues at the time were horrified, but an administrator immediately decided that the two students couldn't be treated differently and so reversed the punishment for the other student.

For an interesting (if problematic) site on plagiarism in academe, see Famous Plagiarists and then subsequent comments by Scott McLemee and Miriam Burstein.

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Posted in Teaching on March 3, 2006 9:13 AM |