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The Crime and Politics of Plagiarism

August 13, 2013

Plagiarism is a uniquely academic crime.  The act of passing off the work of others as one’s own, no matter how deliberate, is not a criminal offence per se, but rather a moral crime. And yet, since the evidence of the crime, consisting simply of written documents to be compared, is itself the crime, plagiarism is an offence that is also uniquely prosecutable.

The subject has found its way into the news lately for a variety of  reasons. German politicians, including most recently the Education Minister, have lost their positions because of plagiarism.  A high profile American journalist has quit because of self-plagiarism (amongst other things). Even TV commentators are blaming their researchers for similar activities.

Meanwhile, the massive free online course provider Coursera has been forced to respond to dozens of cases. And, of course, there is the peculiarly Irish scandal of Flan Garvey the Chairman of the Governing Body of IT Tralee plagiarising at his own institution.

This last case has roiled the Institute of Technology sector, triggering the first ever statutory review under section 46 of the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Educational and Training) Act 2012 and bringing the issue of educational standards into focus.  With IoT’s falling over themselves trying to gain Technological University status and Quality & Qualifications Ireland set to take over quality assurance functions at Irish universities, the outcome of this review has consequences far beyond Tralee.

Given the serious implications for Irish education, this is the first of a series of posts on plagiarism in which a full account of what has recently transpired will be given. In this post we look at the issue of plagiarism more generally and how technology is making it easier both to plagiarise and to get caught. In a follow-up post we will look in detail at the Tralee scandal and the crucial juncture at which it now stands.

Stop kindnapping the children of his mind

Stop kidnapping the children of his mind

The Kidnappers

The term “plagiarism” was coined by the first century Greek poet Martialius, who in anger over another poet, Fidentinus, publishing his poems under his own name, accused him of plagiarium, the kidnapping of children. The poems were the children of his mind and they had been kidnapped by Fidentinus.

In retaliation, Martialis exposed the deceit in a series of “quips” including the following, what must be one of the earliest copyright assertions:

Fame has it that you, Fidentinus, recite my books to the crowd as if none other than your own.
If you’re willing that they be called mine, I’ll send you the poems for free.
If you want them to be called yours, buy this one, so that they won’t be mine.

Nowadays, plagiarism in academia can be defined as the failure of authors to distinguish between their voices and that of others. The threat that plagiarism poses to scholarship is multi-faceted. Aside from injustice, it generates a reluctance of scholars to publish and ultimately undermines a crucial collective aspect of academia.

For these reasons, plagiarism is treated rather severely. A dissertation can be poorly written, the main premise can be entirely mistaken, the conclusions nonsensical, but it had better not contain the uncited work of others.

The intent of the author is irrelevent – inadequate citation is enough to render a work plagiarised – in some cases with a threshold of only 5% similarity. As a safeguard, systems of citation have evolved and, while they may vary somewhat from field to field, there is a common notion of scholarship to which all are expected to adhere.

Copy, shake and paste

There are different types and degrees of plagiarism. The simplest type is cut and paste, available at the stroke of two computer keys. The laziest of  all deceits, this is probably the most common form of plagiarism, and also the easiest to detect.

Next in sophistication is the copy, shake and paste, where the text is subjected to some rearrangement before replication. This can introduce jumps in the narrative, inversion of temporal relations and logical non-sequeters that may identify the plagiarism even in the absense of known sources.

Further along is structural plagiarism in which ideas, arguments or constructs are paraphrased without citation. This is harder to detect and is often at the centre of disputes over precedence.  Self-plagiarism, where one recycles previous work of ones own, is a particular no-no for journalists, and has recently cost an-up-and-coming journalist his position in the New Yorker magazine.

Given the spectrum of behaviour, how does one decide what is acceptable and what is unacceptable? Moreover,  how can individuals and institutions check for plagiarism in the mass of undergraduate and graduate documents submitted every semester?

Plagiarism and Technology

Technology enters on both sides of the issue as both an enabler and a preventative against plagiarism. On the one hand, everyone knows the two fingered salute to copyright (ctrl-c ctrl-v) and on the other there are numerous commercially available packages that claim to identify plagiarism in submitted work.

These packages are becoming embedded in many  institutions’ quality assurance systems and are therefore deserving of careful scrutiny. No doubt they have a role, but the danger is that they may be taken as a cure-all for a complex problem.  This may well suit both lazy gatekeepers and companies poised to make considerable money on a new market, but a sceptical view of this technology must be adopted by academics.

For example, questions have to be asked  as to whether the software has been independently tested for reliability. A recent test carried out on the most popular plagiarism detection software packages showed that none were particularly good.

Simple tricks such as including text as JPEGs entirely throws most software and what happens if the software gets hacked? Given the times we live in, as soon as a weakness is found, there will be a step-by-step youtube tutorial available explaining it to even the dimmest.

The fact is that such software has little value as a deterent and has even led to students suing testing companies over copyright. For these and a host of other reasons, institutions must tread with caution. Software can be, at most, a part of the solution to plagiarism.

Enter the Plagiarism Hunters

A new dimension to plagiarism detection exploded onto the academic world in 2011 with the establishment of a collaborative website dedicated to exposing plagiarism in doctoral theses of German politicians. The site, now incarnated as the VroniPlag Wiki, allows anonymous investigators to post the results of their analysis of theses, colour-coding each page of the dissertation by the degree of plagiarism detected – black for some plagiarism, dark red for at least 50% plagiarised and bright red for more than 75% plagiarised.

Colour-coded map of plagiarism in a thesis

Colour-coded map of plagiarism in a thesis

Within a matter of months, a number of high profile politicans had resigned as Universities across Germany were forced to investigate and ultimately revoke their awards. The German Defence Minister was the first forced out, as was the Education Minister a few years later.

Claims by the Education Minister that different styles of citation held in her field at the time of her dissertation (30 years previously) were met with howls of derision from the German press, with one joking that Universities should therefore set up new Departments of the History of Citation Culture. Currently the Bundestag President is under investiagtion after anonymous online claims that his 1975 dissertation was plagiarised.

To date the band of academic-plagiarism sleuths has considered 39 dissertations, most of which have led to the withdrawel of the award, causing huge angst at the political/academic intersection. A recent effort by German university heads to stem the damage being done by the public exposure of plagiarism has led to further controversy.

The proposed measures  demand that allegations of plagiarism must be made and investigated in secrecy, with those making a case public being guilty of “violating good academic practice.” These efforts to shut down plagiarism hunting websites have been opposed across a broad cross-section of Gertman academics, with over 600 signing a petition against the moves.

Not Just a German Problem

Notorious Phillipine Senator whose speeches are plagiarised

Notorious Phillipine Senator whose speeches are plagiarised

A recent New York Times article on the prevalence of plagiarism in German dissertations has linked it to their national obsession with titles and the unhealthy appetite of politicians for doctoral degrees. However, with both the Hungarian President Pál Schmitt’s and the Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta embroiled in similar scandals, plagiarising politicians is clearly not just a German problem.

Certainly, in Ireland we have had Leaving Certificate students denied a grade for plagiarism and claims that plagiarism is rampant at undergraduate level. The case in Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology of the student using model answers  in an examination has rumbled on for years, racking up an incredible investigation bill of €250,000.

And then we have the Flan Garvey case. While the controversy is still ongoing, with QQI announcing a review of IT Tralee’s power to award research degrees, in the next post we will explore the case and its broader implications. A subsequent post looks in detail at the dissertation at the centre of the controversy and the bar it now sets for Masters degrees in the Institutes of Technology.

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