Saturday, October 13, 2007

"Inadvertent" copying

One day after a regular meeting of our Academic Integrity Committee, where we discuss ways to improve awareness among both students and faculty alike about plagiarism, I open the paper over my bowl of oaty flakes to learn that the embattled president of SIU has been largely let off the hook for copying large chunks of his thesis from other sources. The recommendation of the committee that investigated the case is that the offending thesis should be returned to the library once it has been corrected. We should note that the committee consisted of SIU faculty members over which the president holds not inconsiderable clout. Exactly how independent could their decision making process be? They did not waste much time reaching the decision: not the indecent haste of the OJ jury perhaps, but quickly enough to put the sorry tale behind them and "move on" as is the general wish of the university and its administration.

I'm thinking that correcting the thesis is a complete waste of time at this stage; how many people actually read the thing so many years on? Theses are written to satisfy the degree requirements and then can sit on a shelf, in a library or a den, gathering dust for evermore. How many contain original work worthy of note and recitation later on? Martin Luther's perhaps an exception. The useful parts of any thesis end up being published as papers, which are more easily accessed and referenced. So I suppose that poor Dr. Poshard has now to flog through and put quotes around all those passages. How tarsome.

I'm a bit more bothered about the broader message that this weak decision sends to students about the costs (or lack thereof) of being caught plagiarising. As we lowly folk talk earnestly about integrity, morality and ethics, and preach imploringly about the horrible end that will await any cheater, the world teaches a very different lesson. The possible exception to that is the sports world (baseball excepted), where there has been a massive piling on by vindictive journalists over Marion Jones eventual confession. Generally though, in business, in academe, in politics, in the arts, you can get away with it even if you are caught. Joe Biden, presidential hopeful, once fabricated a story about his background based on that of an English politician. It cost him then; but now it is as if it never happened. Mitch Albom faked a story. I can go on.

The excuse for Poshard that standards were different back then is, to borrow from Gordon Ramsay, complete bollocks. If the university and its members did not know for sure back in the 1980s, even if it wasn't carved on some stone tablets, that copying whole passages from other sources and calling them yours was cheating (plagiarizing) then the institution should be dissolved. I think I knew that back in primary school. This was back in the day before cutting and pasting from the Internet became so easy and tempting. The scribe would have to painstakingly transcribe each word. One thinks it would have been quicker to write one's own, unless the author was so completely devoid of ideas.

Meanwhile, I am flogging through essays, noting with sadness a marked similarity in some cases with Wikipedia, an indication of the putrid level of effort and imagination exerted by those authors in executing a simple assignment. Do they imagine I won't find out?


shirazgirl said...

My Son's high school, specifically his Biology instructor, has instituted the use of I'm wondering if you found it to be successful and if you continued to utilize its services.

Snipper "Book Zeller" said...

I have also become increasingly surprised at the blatant "Copypasta" that has plagued academia. As a person who tends to be enrolled in the so called "Smart-peoples-class" I never thought that I would find peers copying-and-pasting with almost not effort.
In my Aviation 200 class, a student did a presentation and while I have a natural Bias against power point presentations (especially student made ones), this one was particularly appalling. Not only did the student read directly from their slides (Hello... you are showing them on screen... you dont think we cant read?), but she had problems with some of the words in her own presentation.
Also, during peer review of short essays and the like, I am continually amazed at the word usage my fellow classmates us. However, I remember a single phrase, google it and there is their entire paper.
If they can spend 2 minutes googling a topic for a paper, so can any instructor with the same two minutes.
I admit on some hurried occasions, I have fallen back on less academic resources such as google, but I still put the time to rewrite the sentences to my own conclusion and still cite the source.
Before I step off the soap box I am so robbing of the Jdaddy himself, I also need to point out the misuse of online sources. I checked some sources out people were using and not only were they from less than reputable sources, they were extremely outdated. If you are going to use online sources, please take the time to make sure it is something with the faintest suggestion of reliability.
I turn the box back to its beloved owner, supreme high chancellor of IC2RS.

Aylwin Forbes said...

Yes, Shirazgirl (Barossa Babe perhaps), I am fairly familiar with Turnitin. It takes the pain out of checking stuff against internet sources and I did use it for a term. I'm not sure the algorithms used to calculate the matching percentage, and I would counsel anyone against judging on the basis of the number, but review the report that is supplied.

I think the system is more widely used in high schools since both my darling children have used it - and there they have to achieve lower than a particular score, which I think is dangerous for the reason given earlier.

Aylwin Forbes said...


Long time no hear. You must have been bringing in the harvest at that agricultural school of yours.

I remember you not being particularly enamoured of the PowerPoint (sleep-inducing was it?). Here's the thing: would you rather be watching the professor's bottom wiggling as he is writing on the board with his back turned, mumbling inaudibly? I think the PowerPoint has its place but it has to be used in the right way; certainly, simply reading the slides is not the right way. I have read scathing attacks on the PPT format, and for many good reasons; but, used in the correct way, I think it can enhance the learning experience. I'm not suggesting that I have achieved the correct way but I always trying to improve.

Time was when the internet was regarded with complete suspicion as a source for information, but I don't think one can dismiss it so easily now. Frankly, it is my first stop if I want to look something up; and I have often found myself in the much maligned Wikipedia. At least for what I have been searching for it is proven reliable. The danger to the novice is making the mistake of taking everything at face value. It's essential to understand who controls the site being viewed. And, yes, things can live out there for years because there is no organized clean up of outdated sites.

shirazgirl said...

It certainly depends on whose bottom it is, now doesn't it?

You used the Turnitin services along with the beloved "Codcasts" (is it wrong that I still listen to them?)during the Spring 07 term. The Turnitin was unable to decipher the difference between sited and copied material. With that in mind, it is an impossibility to have a near zero percentage. I can see where that would make one nervous when first seeing the percentage of copied material, but once scanning through the scrutinized document, it's obvious what has been sited and what hasn't. It's not a fail safe method, but I, personally, appreciated its value.

shirazgirl said...

...cited, that is.

Aylwin Forbes said...

I sighted your siting rather than citing and sighed; but was relieved to see you had the insight to replace siting by citing.

shirazgirl said...

You are one wacky dude.

Snipper "Book Zeller" said...

I must say, .Jar, that quote made me have to hold my nose to prevent myself from laughing loud enough to wake my roommate.
The whole sleep inducing thing was actually an interesting hypothesis that "psychic friend" of mine and I proposed. Indeed, it was strictly enviornmental (lack of sleep, warm, dark room, reclining chairs, begining of afternoon circadian rhythm etc).
Also, in said reference, ours truly was mentioned to do them well. Incidentally, I do not like powerpoints 90% of the time but (as I am not longer a student, dont have to run the risk of sucking up accusations) yours tended to get a great balance of supporting text, graphics and information. While no expect on the matter, I deffinately found yours far better than any ive seen before.
1337estly yours,

Lawrence B. Ebert said...

The most significant plagiarism of Poshard appeared on page 54 of the thesis. Nevertheless, it is the stupidity, rather than the copying, that is most eye-catching, in copying from a book that was published before 1975 to summarize the literature after 1975.