This morning I received this link on plagiarism software via the Columbia Journalism School mailing list – which is significantly more interesting than most faculty mailing lists, I might add.
In the article, the author, Neuroskeptic, describes the smallish bit of work one has to go through to “launder” text in order for the standard plagiarism detector software to deem it original. The example Neuroskeptic gives us is, ironically, from a research ethics program in Britain called PIE which Neuroskeptic is accusing of plagiarizing text:
PIE Original: You are invited to join the Publication Integrity and Ethics (herein referred to as PIE) as one of its founding members. PIE, a not-for profit organisation, offers free membership to all interested individuals. Please join us and become part of this exciting new movement in the world of publishing ethics; it is the professional home for authors, reviewers, editorial board members and editors-in-chief.
Neuroskeptic: You are invited to join Publication Integrity and Ethics (herein referred to as PIE) and become one of its founding members. PIE, a not-for profit organisation, offers interested individuals free membership. Please join this exciting new movement in the publishing ethics world; PIE is the professional home for reviewers, editorial board members, authors, and editors-in-chief.
This second, laundered piece of text got through software called Grammarly, and the first one didn’t.
Neuroskeptic made his or her point, and PIE has been adequately shamed into naming their sources. But I think the larger point is critical.
Namely, this is the problem with having standard software for things like plagiarism. If everyone uses the same tools, then anyone can launder their text sufficiently to jump through all the standard hoops and then be satisfied that they won’t get caught. You just keep running your text through the software, adding “the’s” and changing the beginning of sentences, until it comes out with a green light.
The rules aren’t that you can’t plagiarize, but instead that you can’t plagiarize without adequate laundering.
This reminds me of my previous post on essay correction software. As soon as you have a standard for that, or even a standard approach, you can automate writing essays that will get a good grade, by iteratively running a grading algorithm (or a series of grading algorithms) on your piece and adding big words or whatever until you get an “A” on all versions. You might need to input the topic and the length of the essay, but that’s it.
And if you think that someone smart enough to code this up deserves an A just for the effort, keep in mind that you can buy such software as well. So really it’s about who has money.
Far from believing in MOOC’s destroying the college campus and have everything online, in my cynical moments I’m starting to believe we’re going to have to talk to and test people face to face to be sure they aren’t using algorithms to cheat on tests.
Of course once our brains are directly wired into the web it won’t make a difference.