Monday, February 11, 2008

First Letter to a Young Plagiarist

Two years of marking undergraduate papers has finally driven me to this:

Specifically, two years of marking bad attempts at plagiarism. Come on, people, this isn't high school anymore. The competition between the plagiarist and the marker is a game like any other, and when you're not playing to win, the game just isn't much fun. The fact that you think plagiarizing from dictionaries,, or Wikipedia is actually good enough to fool me is an insult to my intelligence and a discredit to yours. Play the game properly.

Ironically, Wikipedia might be the perfect place to plagiarize from if you're a decent writer but pressed for time. You can borrow a few phrases here and there, and then go back later and change the wording ever so slightly in the original - not enough to change the meaning (and thus provoke a reversion by another editor), but enough so that the bit you plagiarized can't be so easily found through a simple Google search anymore by the time the marker gets around to actually reading your paper.

Beyond that, you should always aim to plagiarize from offline and uncommon sources. Old journal articles used to be useful resources - a bit dated, but at least offline. Unfortunately, services like JSTOR are scanning these journals and Google Scholar is scanning JSTOR.

Fortunately, there are still all kinds of semi-published sources like other people's master's theses and dissertations that can usually be acquired easily (or free) and which can't be found in fulltext through Google. Plagiarizing from dissertations is a time-honoured tactic in the academy - even professors are getting in on the action with disturbing frequency. It's tough for a junior scholar to challenge a tenured colleague, and some major professional groups - the American Historical Association, for example - have quietly killed off their investigative arms to save their members the embarrassment of losing a challenge. Senior colleagues, at least within the same university, often don't really want to poison the atmosphere by accusing one of their own, nor face the harm to the faculty's collective image of integrity.

Unfortunately, we're only students, which means it's a lot easier to punish us. About the only major plus in our favour is the level of paperwork it takes to process a full investigation of a student's plagiarism. This means that unless you do something ludicrously stupid, like photocopy a chapter from your instructor's own doctoral thesis, you're unlikely to be facing full expulsion. There are still consequences, though, which is why it's always better not to get caught. The one possible argument you can use in the face of real evidence is that it was an accident, and while that may sometimes work, it's a hell of a risk, especially on the fourth and fifth offence.

The remaining online source which can be useful is mediocre-quality generic work. This is the sort of thing you'd only copy when you're short on time and worried about failing, because this sort of shit may take you within a few grade points of failing anyways. The benefit is that it's not very good, because it was written by some idiot on the Internet with even fewer research skills than you. Your marker is less likely to bother looking it up online because the mediocre writing doesn't attract suspicion. It's what they're expecting to see from an average or slightly below-average student. I myself have been bested by such a strategy on at least one occasion. Even here, capable with word choice. If you're going to plagiarize from an online source, always alter the wording enough that you won't be made by a simple Google search.

Speaking of which, the most serious indicator of plagiarism is a sudden disruption in style. Professors who are trying to scare students away from plagiarism often tell students they can tell when you're plagiarizing because of the sudden change in style. They're right! Too many students just copy a sentence here, a phrase there, typically from some scholar in the same field who is trying to justify their doctorate by employing impressive four- and five-syllable words.

The solution, then, is to plagiarize more, not less. Find something with a writing style not dissimilar to your own, and copy as much as you think you can get away with in order to minimize the number of awkward transitions between your words and someone else's. There's a perfect balance somewhere and a good plagiarist can find it: copying enough to minimize awkwardness, but not so much that if you do get caught, you can still feign naivete.

Finally, the golden rule: never write about something your professor knows much about if you can possibly avoid it. Independent research is a vital skill as well as an awesome opportunity for cheating, which is probably why despite maintaining the pretence of being "academic," professors in many large arts and social science programs, etc., are moving away from giving this degree of freedom to their undergrad students. I think this is a horrific trend because it punishes everyone of value: the gifted students have fewer opportunities to test their skills, and the cheating students have fewer opportunities to avoid needing skills. The only ones who don't lose are the average B/C students who are doing most of their own work anyways, and they don't benefit much, either.

I'm saving some of my better advice for future posts.