Admissions

The Perils of Copy And Paste

iStock

If you’re headed to college for the first time this fall, one challenge you’ll face is the amount of original writing you’ll be assigned in your classes. Liberal arts majors, in particular, find that many of their professors require multiple papers across the term or semester. Some are short two-to-three pagers; others may be in the 10-to-15-page region. That’s a lot of copy to write.

With an entire world of information at your fingertips via the internet, the temptation to use someone else’s words as your own can be very strong. You might say to yourself, “With all the papers professors and their teaching assistants have to read, who would take the time to check all these for plagiarism?” You may be surprised.


Like many other things these days, technology has made formerly onerous tasks much easier. That’s especially true in the area of plagiarism checking. One area that I have found particularly interesting over the years is the evolution of automated plagiarism checking software. I’m amazed at all the various tools available for anyone needing to expose lazy writers. The good news is that many of these tools are available to college students who want to be certain that they haven’t broken any compositional laws.

I became aware of the perils of plagiarism at an early age, not as a plagiarist but as a classmate of one in sixth grade. Our history teacher, Mrs. Ammerman, wanted us to write an essay about the subject of Americanism, the qualities regarded as definitive of America or Americans.

While most of us struggled to come up with even a short paragraph that spoke to this broad topic, one of my neighborhood buddies showed up in class with a two-page, hand-printed response. We were all in awe of this guy because prior to this seemingly massive intellectual accomplishment, he was often missing in action from school.

Anyway, we all handed in our miserable statements at the end of class and shuddered to think of how badly Mrs. A would trounce us the next day about the vapid quality of our writings. However, my buddy, the fast-emerging scholar, seemed proud of his accomplishment and was puzzled at our collective angst. We all wondered why he was so self-assured. The answer came the next day.

As we all settled into our seats at the start of Mrs. A’s class, a sense of dread overspread us, but not my buddy, who seemed eager to reap his reward. Mrs. A entered the classroom and appeared curious about the absence of our usual clamor. We all noticed that she was carrying our compositions. The feared hour had arrived.

She sat down and assumed her usual imperious demeanor. Her scowl this time, though, seemed especially ominous. “Perhaps I didn’t explain my assignment in enough detail,” she began. “Many of you were in the right ballpark but didn’t have your proper seat [one of her favorite sports-related metaphors]. However, I would like to call your attention to one response that deserves special note.” Of course, we all knew which one that was -- my buddy’s.

“Ken [my buddy], you went well beyond the call with your work,” Mrs. A began. Ken sat up straight and tried to look humble. “Your two-page essay was four-to-six times longer than anything your classmates wrote.” By this time, the buttons on Ken’s shirt were having a hard time keeping his chest contained. “Unfortunately, you wrote about Americanization instead of Americanism.” Ken’s chest began to deflate.

“The other bad news,” Mrs. A continued, “is that not only did you write about the wrong thing, you also copied your essay word-for-word from an article in the World Book encyclopedia. I know this for a fact because I checked!” Ken slid slowly down in his seat. “You will get a zero for this assignment while I’ll give the rest of the class a second chance to do it.” And then she stood up, put her hands on her hips, and spoke loudly the words I shall never forget:

“I will not tolerate plagiarism!!!” That moment became hardwired in my memory!

So why am I dredging up an ancient anecdote and making a big deal about plagiarism? Answer: Turnitin (and other anti-plagiarism software) lurks behind those ivy walls to which you’re headed.

Let's Define Plagiarism

Plagiarism is copying another person's ideas, words or writing and pretending that they are one's own work. It can involve violating copyright laws. ... Writers who plagiarize commit serious legal and ethical violations.

Is this something you should be worried about, as you deal with the avalanche of writing assignments in college, grad school and beyond? Here are some comments that might help you decide:

Turnitin And The Debate Over Anti-Plagiarism Software

Students are heading back to campus. And when they finish writing that first paper of the year, a growing number will have to do something their parents never did: run their work through anti-plagiarism software.

One company behind it is called Turnitin. And the database it uses to screen for potential plagiarism is big. Really, really big.

Chris Harrick, Turnitin’s vice president of marketing, describes it this way: “Automatically, that paper gets checked against about 45 billion web pages; 110 million content items from publishers, scientific journals, et cetera; and 400 million student papers to provide an originality report.”

Harrick says the company is now used by more than half of all higher ed institutions in the U.S. and by roughly a quarter of all high schools. Turnitin isn’t the only company doing this, but it is the biggest.

How It Works

Here’s how it works: A student submits a paper through Turnitin’s website. The company’s algorithms then compare strings of text against its massive database. And, as Harrick said, it doesn’t just check the Internet. Most of the papers, once they’ve been run through the system and scrubbed of student names, actually stay in the system.

When all the comparing is done, the teacher gets a report that gives the percentage of the paper that matched other sources. The report never says: This is plagiarism. Just: This is similar.

One complaint is that the filter turns up false positives. The report color-codes suspect passages and gives links to the material they matched, so a teacher can decide for herself. Instead of the old way … 

“I would basically have to do Google searches,” says Jennifer Schroeder, an associate professor of biology at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill. She has embraced Turnitin in a big way — and not just to save time.

“I saw a lot of cases of students that just simply didn’t know what to do,” Schroeder says. They didn’t understand the rules of proper citation …

Big Brother (of a sort) is watching, so what can you do about that? For starters, you can check your own papers for plagiarism -- or what may be viewed as being “similar” (nice euphemism!) -- before you submit them using any one of a number of free plagiarism checkers from the web. Here’s a list to get you started. Looking at just one -- aptly named Plagiarism Checker -- we see these instructions:

To use this plagiarism checker, please copy and paste your content in the box below, and then click on the big blue button that says “Check Plagiarism!” then sit back and watch as your article is scanned for duplicated content.

How hard is that? You should review that list of free checkers and try them out before you leave for college by copying and pasting in text from well known sources. Then see which one works best for you. Bookmark the URL for use in coming classes.

Encountering all this “smart” software reminds me of what Stephen Hawking said: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” … Computers will overtake humans with AI at some point within the next 100 years. When that happens, we need to make sure the computers have goals aligned with ours.”

I couldn’t agree more and happen to think that AI is going to become a threat much sooner than Hawking does. However, as it relates to plagiarism and current and future college students, be aware that increasingly refined and specialized AI-based software will be watching your work. Don’t take the easy copy-and-paste way out. Be original!

Remember Mrs. Ammerman’s admonition: Don’t be a copycat!