Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What’s the Best Plagiarism Detector?

My favorite plagiarism story from the last month is the Time article “How Plagiarism Software Found a New Shakespeare Play.” The story explains how plagiarism-detection software was used to look for similarities between known Shakespearean plays and a work suspected to by the Bard. They found enough similarities to convince the author of the study that we should add The Reign of Edward III to the Shakespearean canon.

The Shakespearean study used the free software Pl@giarism, one of many checkers you can find online. Nick Carbone, Director of New Media for Bedford/St. Martin’s, recently posted a list of plagiarism detectors to several discussion lists. Nick, who has done a number of workshops on avoiding plagiarism, found the following programs, which he’s allowed me to share with you :

I‘m tempted to run The Reign of Edward III through some of these other tools to see if they concur with the original study, but that’s really the only way I’d use them.

Russ Hunt, from St. Thomas University in New Brunswick, Canada, explains the basic challenge I see in such plagiarism detectors in a comment on a 2007 blog entry I wrote about plagiarism:

[W]e need to get rid of the “turn in” part of “turnitin.” What happens to student writing should be that it gets read, and matters: what happens in fact, way too much of the time, is that it gets “turned in.” I always think of the image of sod.

As long as student writing serves the sole purpose of being a medium by which students are evaluated (it's “turned in” so we can do that), students aren’t going to see it as real. We can “encourage” students to “choose topics that matter to them” all we want, but they have to matter to a reader too. And you don't “turn things in” to a reader. You turn them in to “the teacher as examiner.”

In other words, all the plagiarism detectors listed above focus on some finished product that students have “turned in.” They care only about a final copy and read the texts like a spell checker, with little passion for what the author has tried to say. As Hunt suggests, students’ work is not read, so much as examined. So if none of those tools do what we need, what is the best option?

The best plagiarism detector

  • looks at students’ work in progress. It doesn’t wait till the end to scream, “GOTCHA!” It looks at writing throughout the composing process and shows writers that a reader is genuinely interested in their take on the topics.
  • makes sure that writers are never working frantically, at the last minute. It guards against situations where students plagiarize in the anxiety of last-minute writing. It values not just that final draft that gets “turned in” but every draft—from jotted notes to sloppy copy to published submissions.
  • gives writers information about using sources in the context of the composing process. It teaches the difference between summary and quotation and how to check citations in the context of the work in progress. Ideally, when a writer begins working with outside sources, the best detection system would be able to step in and look at what the writer is doing and give feedback to help resolve any issues before the final draft is “turned in.”

In short, the best plagiarism detector pays attention to what writers are doing early on and throughout the composing process and fosters an authentic exchange between readers and writers.

And that’s why you are actually the best plagiarism detector. A writing teacher who engages students as an authentic reader and works with them throughout the process can detect more plagiarism than any software algorithm ever will. And more importantly, a writer teacher can not only detect plagiarism but also can talk to writers about how to fix any issues before that final draft is “turned in.”


Anonymous said...

Spot-on, Traci!

Nancy Martin said...

If students are writing only outside your classroom completing assigned writing as homework, and never during class, a teacher may not know if the writing "turned in" is the student's own authentic work. I, like probably almost every teacher, have had students plagiarize in my classes, but I also think another component that needs to be addressed is building the level of trust that occurs between writer and reader. If we stay in the traditional role of student and teacher, such trust is difficult to build. I tell my students my 2 cardinal rules are "know your audience" and "care about what you write". However, if we are directing too much of the writing, this is difficult to achieve. Writing has to become more student-driven if we want students to truly become writers rather than students fulfilling assignments. We are attempting to do this with our students at Vint Hill Academy. Get more information at our website about tutoring and test

Anonymous said...

nice post. let us all place a bit more emphasis on building writing relationships with students

E.L. in Houston said...

People who want to reward students for doing the work instead of helping them find their own voice and be honest in their work need to get a dose of real world work. I sat on a jury that was convened because of a patent violation. The defendant "stole" ideas from a patent and claimed them as his own. I have a friend whose dissertation was plagiarized by a professor. And the list goes on. "Turning it in" means that a student is learning to write, and regardless of how wonderful and interesting the material is, if the student used someone else's work without attributing credit to the one who really wrote it, then he cheated and lied. I use Turnitin.com as a tool for editing, and I give the paper back to them before I grade it. They can then have the opportunity to catch whatever mistakes they made in failure to paraphrase well, forgetting to put in a parenthetical documentation after a quotation, or whatever is "caught." Turnitin can be used as a positive learning experience before the grade is assigned. Hopefully, the person who wrote the quoted comment will see that there are some of us who want to teach our students how to submit their own work that is clear, effective, and honest writing and do not simply want to say "Gottcha." Stop trying to be their friend and be the adult and teacher.

Anonymous said...

Traci is exactly right!

Toni Alazraki said...

I really like the emphasis on the teacher as reader. I am a writing tutor, and I always present myself as a reader who wishes to understand. This creates a very good atmosphere during the tutoring process. As part of my desire to understand, I always include questions about where the information in the paper came from.

If a student is concerned about the grade for a paper, I always advise him or her to think of the professor as a reader who is part of the audience that the student is addressing in the paper. "Help your reader understand," is a comment I often make. And, "make sure your reader can see clearly which ideas are your own and which ideas you obtained from others."

Anonymous said...

Dr. M. E. Waddell

Traci's comments are well taken by this reader, and I can assure you that most of the English teachers / professors I know do most, if not all, of what she suggests.

However, and this is huge, I don't know how long and under what circumstances Traci teaches, but teachers who have 200 students, state testing standards to "teach to" as they themselves are being evaluated by some elusive "annual progress" of students based on some idiotic test, who teach themselves blue in the face, stay after school to offer help to students only to have none show up over and over, meticulously mark papers to the tune of ten to twelve hours outside the 38 teaching clock hours, post guide sheets on the wall, online, and in e-mails, etc. are still plagued with students who ELECT to wait until the last minute. These teachers are still plagued with the gross laziness of students who don't care to learn any method of honorable writing because it is so much easier to cheat. These teachers have to face administrators and parents whose outcry at the accusation of plagiarism is nearly as shrill as the student's was. Yes, these teachers would like software that could help detect cheating, and certainly such software could ascribe my latest grocery list with an ode by Keats, but what of it?

The solution is the one Traci professes, agreed. However, this solution will work best when teachers have class sizes that are manageable which gives them time to mentor students in class. Traci's world has a better chance of existing when children and young adults are learning integrity, the value of inquiry and the point of writing to advance valuable cognitive skills in the academic world, the nearly only world where such a demand for properly cited writing is made.

When public schools in this nation undergo a serious bottom to top revamping and we move from the assembly line post-industrial model to a real learning system based on collaboration and inquiry then we can expect students to care more about the process, have pride in themselves and see academic writing as a natural outgrowth of their own personal progress in intellectual inquiry. Until then, the haggard T.A., professor, teacher, and tutor will be dealing with the results of the decline in academic inquiry now so widespread in schools and institutions of higher learning, and he or she will be wailing and grinding teeth over the lack of integrity which has led to such poor product from our students.

Jean Reynolds said...

I think the best plagiarism-prevention tool is to turn the documentation process upside-down. (Or, more accurately, right-side-up). Teach students to think about documentation the way that professionals do.
When I write for publication, I don't ask myself whether I should document a particular piece of information. What I do is look for a significant source to back me up.
I try to work as many important sources into my essay or article as I can.
So: A student writing about, say, alcoholism might begin with a list of sources that readers would expect to see in his or her paper. Here's a possible list:
-The AA Big Book
-the director of the Betty Ford Center
-a government official from a substance abuse agency
-a story about an alcoholic from a news magazine, such as Time or Newsweek

And so on. Concentrate on getting experts into the paper instead of worrying about what has to be documented.

A bonus is that it's hard to plagiarize a paper if the assignment is presented this way.

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Pflugerville Denstists said...

Don't you think that with the internet and volumes of information and the ability to just cut and paste information, it becomes easier and easier and maybe the lines become a little blurred.

I have a problem with the parents that help their kids or just do the whole project for them.

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I think lines get blurred when parents help kids too much when they are young. They don't realize they have to actually work and figure things out for themselves and write things for themselves.

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It's too bad this kind of thing is happening so much. Is it really getting worse or are people getting caught?

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