Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

On plagiarism

I'm not a fan of copyright. Plagiarism is like a worse form of copyright in terms of when infringement is activated, and its particular characteristics are where things could head if the movement toward less copyright fails. Right now plagiarism only has teeth because of its potential to ruin academic careers--if it had penalties similar to copyright infringement, this world would suck a lot. Am I against plagiarism penalties? "Don't spread the plague", as it were? No. I don't think plagiarism is entirely evil and schools who are active against it generally do better than otherwise. I think the the US school system's attitudes towards plagiarism need to change, but the status quo is better than eliminating caring about plagiarism altogether. I think in India much of the incompetence associated with their university graduates can be attributed to the rampant plagiarism of the students who feel like it's okay and disinterested reactions of the professors, as well as a cultural issue of being superior to your peers (some of whom may be in a higher caste!) in terms of productive work and accomplishment.

I had one incident in my academic history, in high school, where the teacher called my home and talked to my mom, who relayed the teacher's desire for me to come in to discuss a one-page paper she claimed I plagiarized. I was disturbed because I had not intentionally plagiarized, and I think the teacher knew that, so she cleared up for me what she interpreted as plagiarism so that I could avoid it and redo the assignment. I honestly don't remember the details of the assignment, I think it was something about researching some instrument and explaining very basic properties of how they worked, what sound waves they generated, and so on. I was uninterested in the original paper and the subject it was supposed to be about, but I wrote it up. I went to Wikipedia, listed it as my only source, read the article and a couple related articles, then regurgitated the important points in my own words. Is this not research? Apparently not. This bugged me and still bugs me to this day, so much so that when I try and write any "research" paper where plagiarism could be an issue, I write about what I already know, and write it "from memory" as it were, then hunt down references afterwards. I have a broad knowledge base compared to my peers so generally this works out, assignments are done quickly, and I can get back to real research and thought that doesn't require me to write a paper listing every idea that's not mine. I have no original ideas, after all. Everything I've created is just a remix. (Sometimes I'm not even aware of equivalent ideas, i.e. I :came up" with them "independently", but I think that speaks to the easiness with which such an idea can be formed by remixing and extrapolating from common knowledge.)

Research papers are funny things. In English, essays are really legal arguments where you argue opinions. They have utility in letting students exercise their creativity in a structured way, form their own opinions, argue for their own opinions and against others or responses, and so on. Research papers (at the 10th grade level at least) have less direct utility to the student. Really they're just a lazy way for the teacher to say "show me you spent some time learning about this thing or something of your choice." Real academic papers with abstracts and such have high utility in their content, but they even have some utility in the references list. The list isn't so much useful in showing some professor or journal editor that the author knows he didn't rediscover knowledge that's been around for decades or even hundreds of years, or to show the author has read about the subject, or to show the author knows how to paraphrase and quote correctly, but their usefulness is in adding a paper trail of important works within the subject for newcomers to follow and learn from if they don't understand your paper or want to learn what you learned that motivated you discovering, researching, or building whatever the content of your paper is about.

Here is a popular sentiment: "Copying an idea from an author is plagiarism. Copying many ideas from many authors is... research!!" --Phelson's Law.

And this was basically what was wrong with my high school paper, as explained to me by my teacher. I needed more sources, and more than just what was linked to by wikipedia. If it was a book source, even better. (I suspect a book source, especially a not-trivially-available book source, also helps because it makes it harder for a lazy teacher to perform their duty and check how much you lifted from the book or whether the book is even relevant at all.)

So I redid my paper and handed it in personally while saying something like "I hope I've understood what you mean by plagiarism and that this time the paper will meet your requirements." It did, and that was that. Since then I haven't ever been accused of plagiarism, but I am self-conscious of such an accusation being thrown my way and the dire consequences it could mean precisely because I know I have no original ideas. I don't try to claim I do. My safeguards against a plagiarism accusation include trying to cite as much as I can when the teacher asks for citations, knowing what the teacher interprets plagiarism as, using constructs like "I think" gratuitously to make explicit an opinion that for all anyone (including myself sometimes!) can tell I may have arrived at without reading that opinion spelled out to me at some point, working exclusively on my own even when groups are possible (it helps that this is my preference as an introvert as well), and when I can choosing to work on bizarre things the teacher probably isn't deeply familiar with and for which wikipedia can't help much in helping me do the project/assignment or in helping the teacher see how little original content I have, plus they are so bizarre that I'm almost certainly the only one in the school doing something like it and thus probably am not lifting work from another student.

That's really what I think plagiarism should focus on the most: copying from fellow students. Secondly, copying verbatim entire assignments either from someone online who published something similar, a book, or paying someone to do assignments for you. And this isn't really so much plagiarism as it is cheating. Cheating is the real sin here, and it's much easier to define, though it still has its nebulous areas. (I don't agree with those asshole professors in the news over the past couple years who claim students studying from old exams and answer sheets are cheating. They're gaming the class, and it's the teacher's job to not be lazy and make such gaming harder.)

To me, plagiarism is only a problem if and only if the student who is plagiarizing is doing so while claiming they did the work, which in other words they're cheating, and I think it's safe to call the incompetents in India (and frankly in the US as well) cheaters. I know of a few at my school who float through their classes by getting their friends or teammates to do the lion's share of their work for them, some get caught and face harsh penalties, some do it "once or twice" and this I think is generally acceptable in the public eye, some get through and graduate and then fail to get a job they want because employers actually test and don't take employees who only get 50-70% of the answers, and all they have cheated is themselves.

Unfortunately school assignments are graded such that if you can't say "I did the work" in at least a generally true sense of putting in effort and producing content from your mind through your hands, you get a 0. This creates an incentive to overinflate your own contributions, and check for presence or absence of "contributed stuff" (in the form of homework, presentations, in-class tests, etc.) and value the presence of it more than the quality of it.

The weird projects like "write a one page paper about the history of the transistor" are just that: weird. Was I there during the transistor's creation and have I experienced the early effects it's had on society? No. So I have to learn about the history from two or more sources and remix that knowledge, phrasing things such that I don't hand in a paper full of quotes which is equivalent to handing in someone else's paper, and such that I make note of when ideas were said by others before me. A student can "do this work", but that's true only in the most basic and shallow sense, and the purpose of the "work" is better suited with other work. The assignment would function much better if it was "read about the history of the transistor if you don't know about it, and I will test you on it to make sure you read or know something." The status quo on these sorts of assignments simultaneously makes it hard to claim made a contribution, but also makes it hard to deflect an accusation of plagiarism, which unlike flat-out cheating can be very hard to consciously avoid due to the term's fuzziness.

Such assignments fill me with anxiety every time they come my way, even though I try hard not to consciously plagiarize, and even though I know I probably could get away with a lot because I see others (either consciously or as a mistake anyone including me could make) get away with "not properly checking their humility", "lazily using someone else's effort instead of their own on an assignment they don't care about", etc. from time to time, and while the official consequence of plagiarism is expulsion, most "good students" (i.e. not trouble makers with a record) get multiple chances. (The reason US schools are superior to Indian schools is precisely this "time to time" aspect, whereas from what I'm told in India it's totally rampant.). A test would not fill me with anxiety and I argue accomplishes the same educational goal the professor wants, it's just more work for them. Does anyone else feel this way?

Posted on 2013-03-01 by Jach

Tags: intellectual property, personal, rant, school


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Jach March 13, 2013 07:57:12 AM Another thing I thought about adding, is about self-plagiarism, i.e. using something you've already made as if you just made it.

Self-plagiarism is, like plagiarism, entirely a problem for schools, but it's a much lesser problem. For example, professors often have "ongoing research" in which they write a new paper every few months or a year, which is basically the same thing as their last paper, with perhaps a few new things added in. In my eyes this is self-plagiarism, but it's inconsequential, and in the Real World it's known as iterating, which is a good thing.

What academic institutions should be marginally concerned about is this: students who take an assignment they completed for a course at that school, and then turn in the exact same thing with no modifications for a different course's assignment. That's blatant self-plagiarism. I can be for or against having penalties for it, I think it ought to be a case-by-case thing.

There's another sort of self-plagiarism students can do however that I think shouldn't ever be punished: turning in something they made on their own free time for an assignment. But they only get to do this once per thing! Say for instance you have to write an essay of your choice, and you have one ready to go from a couple years ago that's just sitting on your hard drive... The purpose of the assignment is, to me, showing you can write 1 essay. Turning in your old essay instead of writing a new one seems fine to me.

Then suppose a second writing course has the same assignment. Again, the purpose of the assignment is, write 1 essay. If the student turns in the same thing again, that's blatant self-plagiarism, and I think the student should be forced to turn in something new or receive a 0. Why? Their single essay shows they can write 1 essay, but the cumulative goal of having two classes with the same assignment is to show they can write 2 essays. They have not written 2, but only 1. So they need to write another--or, if they have a separate essay they wrote in their own free time sitting unused on their hard drive, use that.

My key viewpoint here is really simple: it doesn't matter when something was made, but you only get to use it for school credit once. Unless the teacher explicitly says otherwise. (Sometimes students have two classes that want an "independent project" at the end of the course, and the student is allowed to use the same project for both classes as long as it does incorporate material from each. And the purpose of such an assignment isn't "make 1 project", but "incorporate the ideas of this class into some project".)
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