"Downloading for the greater good"

Via Johndan’s blog, I found this amusing look at plagiarism, “Downloading for the Greater Good,” by Lauren Frey and available at her blog “The Morning News.” It’s a firmly tongue-in-cheek look at the “up-side” of students buying/getting papers off of the Internet. Like Johndan, I thought this was the most humorous passage:

Most tenured professors didn’t grow up with computers, so they’re not always that sharp when it comes to zeroes and ones. I used to work as an administrative assistant at a very reputable college. It is no exaggeration to say that many of the professors couldn’t handle making microwave popcorn, much less checking their email.

But since students started downloading papers, professors have been forced to catch up with technology. Skipping past the skills needed to operate a microwave, they now have to search the internet looking for proof that the papers are “plagiarized.� Professors have had to learn software such as the “Glatt Plagiarism Screening Program,� which blanks out every fifth word of a student’s paper and then tests how long it takes the student to fill them all back in. Also, many colleges maintain online anti-plagiarism databases that allow professors to type in any eyebrow-raising turn of phrase from a student’s paper to see if it was copied from another source.

This may sound like simple stuff to you and me, but keep in mind that about half of currently tenured professors were born before TV sets became common in American homes.

That popcorn bit got me. I don’t know about where you work, but every time one of my colleagues screws up making microwave popcorn in the faculty lounge, it stinks up the whole floor.

Anyway, two thoughts:

  • To be fair, I have plenty of junior colleagues, some born in the 70’s, who not only routinely burn the popcorn but who are still somewhat in the dark about this whole new-fangled “Internet thing.” Sure, they do email and they will look stuff up on the web, but I think that people of all ages find themselves in fields like English because they don’t want to become particularly computer literate. Of course, as Frey suggests, they ultimately have to become at least a little computer literate.
  • If you’re a student and you’re reading this blog right now and you are thinking that your teacher will never know if you just “copied and pasted” a paper and hand it in, you are probably wrong. Let me try to explain why:

    As I mentioned back in June, I had a student lift a paper from one of these sites with free papers last Spring term. I honestly think that this was the first time this has happened in one of my classes ever. I’m not suggesting that students have never passed any plagiarized material by me or they haven’t passed work by me where they have received maybe a little too much help from a friend or whatever. But I’m talking here about a paper that was pretty much lifted wholesale from a web site.

    The student who did this in June was clearly desperate. The student (I’ll leave the “he or she” thing up in the air) was going to fail the class because he/she was not able to write a passing essay the entire semester. His/her writing was simply that bad. How bad? Well, I was going to type a sentence from one of his/her essays, but I decided that wouldn’t really be that nice, even though this student did in the end cause me much grief. Let’s just say that I’ve been teaching for a long time, and I have had few college-aged students who demonstrated this lack of basic literacy skills. In short, passing off someone else’s writing was his/her last-ditch effort.

    How did I know it was plagiarized? Well, I was reading along in this student’s final research essay and it seemed like his/her writing for the first page or so. Then I came across the sentence “Since strict monitoring of diabetes is needed for the control of the disease, little room is left for carelessness.” That sentence struck me as being distinctly not this student’s writing, so I did a Google search. And the rest, as they say, is history.

    This is obviously an extreme example, but I tell this story because I have had any number of students who have inserted passages and quotes from their sources without giving them credit. This is technically plagiarism, but I usually attribute this sort of thing to not properly citing evidence. Sometimes, when I note in a marginal comment that a particular passage has come from a different source and needs to be properly cited, students respond as if I’ve performed some incredible mind-reading/magic trick in being able to spot this. I think this is because some students think they have seamlessly integrated the lifted writing into their own writing. And yet every college teacher I’ve ever met can spot most of these kinds of mini-versions of plagiarism the same way that anyone listening to the radio can tell when the station changes from classical to rock.

    Anyway, a long way to the moral, but here it goes: Students, better to cite your evidence too often rather than not enough, and if you’re going to steal from the Internet, do a really good job of it because most professors know how to do a Google search, too.

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3 Responses to "Downloading for the greater good"

  1. Nick Carbone says:

    The real irony Frey’s piece are the Google ads placed at the bottom of the page, which ads lead to term paper mill sites.

  2. Steven D. Krause says:

    Ha! Well, once again, this is the problem of these Google ads. I would run them myself if this sort of thing didn’t happen all the time….

  3. Zeev says:

    Dear Steven,

    Please read my new post about plagiarism on my blog.

    Also, since you’re interested like me in computers and learning you’d maybe like to check QTSaver, a software I invented, which, I think, can take a student to fantastic Web adventures becuase of its LEADS feature.
    I’ll be happy to answer any questions you’ll have on this…

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