Thursday, January 22, 2004

Plagiarismo

N ick Carbone sent a note to techrhet subscribers last night that the news about Canadian student Jesse Rosenfeld's refusal to submit his work to turnitin.com surfaced in the mainstream via CNN and Court TV. I'd been following this issue with interest since I first read about it over at Jerz's Literacy Weblog and Kairosnews.

As I see it, turnitin.org is challenged by an image problem; its name (more importantly than its utility) implicates guilt among students mandated to use it. I guess that's the root objection felt by Rosenfeld. In a sense, the system is subjecting him to a damaging, a priori criminalization. Guilty until proven innocent. And plagiarism sifters generally work that way. But plagiarized essays don't merit serious consideration for the fulfillment of academic calls. Plagiarism is rather like a sucker punch to the integrity of higher education, and the Internet is enabling rapidly recurrent, heavy blows. We should be able to agree that cheats should be given the old heave-ho before any instructor pours carefully, but unwittingly, over the text. Right? But there's always more to it. Turnitin.com could start by trying on a new name, such as surveillanceworks.net.

One-draft submissions have necessarily given way to processes with proposals, exploratory drafts, brief annotated bibliographies and so on. In other words, many of the essay mills don't market comprehensive process packages (such as we might find in an all-included, end-of-term portfolio with untidy pieces and so on). The market, however, is smartening to composition's deeper processes (http://www.essayrelief.com/, for example, advertises "research work" included with the order, but I haven't tried it, so I don't have any sense of how messy it is. Convincingly messy?). Devisers of assignments, then, must stay one step ahead of the services available for circumventing the rules of decorum (articulated wherever they may be!). And, yet, plagiarism will continue to leak into the academy, will linger as a vile, troubling matter.

At places with little or no WAC initiative, I'd wager that much of the proliferation of plagiarism comes about from oft-used, timeless prompts or single-submission assignments (oh, right, and the plagiarist-student is to blame, as well). I wasn't trying to parade a holier-than platitude, but I made the mistake of saying this aloud recently and got in return: "I agree with your point in principle. However, when one teaches a 300 level class, one just does not expect to deal with issues like draft and rewrite." More discussion followed, healthy discussion about new understandings of the information and services from which students can take unattributed work, greater urgency about making writing processes visible (which can be tough since our best habits are considerably varied), and institution-wide dissonance on how best to address the issue.

I'm still learning where all of this fits into my teaching. I don't prefer to wear the plagairism-police badge, and I see a greater need to treat some instances of plagiarism as an opportunity for working toward an understanding of intellectual property. Lately, I've taken to using EveII for sifting offenders, usually after I read a suspicious essay, but sometimes before I read any essay in a set that has arrived in my inbox. Google's exact match search is also widely used and effective for cuing exact strings. It seems more and more to be an inevitable part of teaching writing, and, as such, seems like something we should continue conversations about (along with lots of other stuff), especially as long as the latest technologies reconfigure the scene.