Saturday, December 21, 2013

Playgiarism

Alas, my grading for the semester isn't done, though it should be. A student, who plagiarized for an earlier assignment and was read the riot act, has plagiarized for the final assignment, too! It makes me feel sad rather than angry. (Also a little guilty, as we were supposed to meet and talk about it but I got distracted by Thanksgiving, etc.) Presumably the student - a first year, and an international student to boot - is just overwhelmed, and was ready for the course to be over.

But here's an unexpected twist. Where the student's from, I was told, it is permissible to copy passages from a website, without the apparatus of quotation marks, etc., so long as the website is listed in the bibliography. I'm dubious. But the more interesting thing was what the student said next. As a non-native speaker, the student routinely puts work through a website called grammarly.com, which, among other things, tests for plagiarism. The paper I got passed the grammarly test.

Or so the student claimed in a conciliatory e-mail: my understanding of plagiarism should obviously trump grammarly.com's, but it's not as if the student didn't try to avoid plagiarism. If you believe this is a case of plagiariam, I will accept it, because I see that did not format it to my own words well enough. I wasn't quite sure what this meant, so I copied the first plagiarized five-sentence chunk into grammarly.com.

Frustrated by the intellectual timidity of traditional colleges, they envisioned a new kind of academic institution where faculty and students would be free to honestly and directly address the problems facing societies in the 20th century. In 1919, they created a School of Advanced Adult Education to bring creative scholars together with citizens interested in improving their understanding of the key issues of the day through active questioning, debate, and discussion. The founders named their new school ‘The New School for Social Research’. Over the years, The New School for Social Research, now formally named The New School, grew into an urban university with seven divisions. The university is enriched by the diversity of its students, who represent a wide range of ages, social backgrounds, aspirations, perspectives, interests and talents.

Its plagiarism red flag went off, too. "Unoriginal text detected"!
What's going on? This was all in an opening section which seems to have been added in haste. Deeper in the essay the chunks are smaller, and some are even disguised with synonyms. I recall an episode from the early teaching career of my friend H. When she confronted a student with evidence that his whole essay came from online (it wasn't even on one of the assigned topics!), he replied with great contrition: "I'm so sorry! I must have forgotten to save the changes!"

I decided to try an experiment. How much would I have to change to get these 5 paragraphs through grammarly.com's plagiarism checker? Changing one word in each sentence wasn't enough, or two. (I tried.) This required some real thinking! But by the time I'd made about twenty changes, replacing some words, moving others around, and adding a few

Discouraged by the intellectual timidity of the traditional universities of the time, they imagined a new kind of academic establishment where students and faculty would be free to honestly and directly face the problems facing societies in the 20th century. In 1919, they established a School of Advanced Adult Education to bring together scholars with creative citizens interested in improving their understanding of the central issues of the day through active querying, discussion, and debate. The founders named their new establishment ‘The New School for Social Research’. Over time, The New School for Social Research, now formally known as The New School, matured into an urban university with seven divisions. The university is enriched by the wonderful diversity of its students, who represent a broad range of ages, social backgrounds, perspectives, interests and ethics. 

I'd passed the test: "The text in this document is original."

It didn't take more than a few tries, and I've even learned some useful strategies for next time! (Changing words is less effective than tweaking the sentence structure.) It was like a game. Plagiarism's never been such fun! Is this how papers are written in the age of the internet?

One last thing. Perhaps this flagrant plagiarism was a cry for help? The student added one sentence to the end of the paragraph with the five plagiarized sentences: Originality and research at New School stands out to be one of the most important traits it possesses.

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