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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Postgraduate Diary: Plagiarism

Friday, December 15, 2006

I was obviously quite amused by the discovery that my work was being used by students at an American university as part of their course. But this finding, in conjunction with the fact that, over the last couple of months, hits to this site have shot up to about 200 a day, reminds me of a more serious problem of publishing online. As I said, I have just finished marking my first batch of essays; it is not, in my opinion, particularly challenging to mark a university essay, because the categories are so broad: almost by the end of the first paragraph I am generally sure whether it is going to be a 2.1 or a First. And of far more importance than the grade itself is the discursive individual handback session with each student. However, as a postgraduate tutor I do lack one key skill that a more experienced tutor has, which is to be attuned to recognise where work has recruited specific ideas or phrases from an existing critic.

Sometimes I can spot plagiarism. Last year, for example, by the time I had read five essays all talking about the "fetishistic pistols" in Hedda Gabler, I had twigged that there must be some source from which this nice quote was drawn, and it wasn't too difficult to trace it to an essay by Elaine Showalter. But more difficult to spot are those paraphrases of less well-known critical texts. Whereas a lecturer on the course will probably have read most of the works on the subject, I do not have the time or need to do this. Hence it is quite possible that in some of the essays given to me a phrase has slipped passed my red pen radar. Neither am I in the position to experience something one of the tutors who ran our teaching induction had: an essay which blatantly plagiarises a book which the tutor herself had written.

Having said that, there is the possibility that this might happen through this website. As a fellow postgraduate blogger has recently experienced, with online sources increasingly used by tech-savvy students, the chances of work drawn from the internet being applied in essays increases as well. Clearly, in a digital age, it ought to be correspondingly easier to trace plagiarism of online sources immediately through tools such as Turnitin. But these are not perfect, and not all tutors have access to it - I don't, or I would have checked to see whether it registered the essays available on The Pequod, which with my increased hits and with me now being a scholar of international reputation, may increasingly be a source for plagiarism. I would be horrified to learn that this is the case; so at the weekend I put a piece of warning text at the top of every essay:
Plagiarism is theft! If using this essay in your own work, please ensure you use the correct citation.
Not that this will prevent a plagiarist, but it at least salves my conscience to know that I have publicly denounced and drawn attention to it, and take no pleasure from students using my work unless, as with those lucky students who studied it as part of their course, they acknowledge it.

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Posted by Alistair at 11:33 am

1 Comments:

Anonymous John (Grad School Team B:-)) said...

We have a plagiarism checker that all electronically submitted work goes through. If their answers look a bit bizzarre (or sometimes if I just feel like it) I do a Google search for chunks of their answers and have caught one person cheating this way. In computing it can be easy to tell some forms of cheating - if their programs can't produce the output they claim it does for example. I keep all work I mark and this once paid off when I found something that looked familiar, and discovered it was copied word for word from a previous year's submission. The daftest one was the time my colleague discovered someone had submitted a previous year's sample answer...
I agree though, spotting plagiarism is tough and I'm sure there are plenty who slip through the net. However, we must console ourselves with the knowledge that one day these people will be in the world of work and asked to do something themselves when they have nothing to copy from...

9:57 am  

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