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Wednesday, February 22, 2006


I just found a plagiarist. A smart plagiarist, but still, a plagiarist. S/he's taken material from Sparknotes, completely rewritten it, and then worked that material into her/his own text. There aren't any identical sentences, but there are a number of eeriely similar paragraphs that make observations I doubt the student could come up with on her/his own. Oh, and the material that does not appear to owe anything to Sparknotes? Pretty bad.

So depressing. What's most depressing is the fact that I'm sure there are others out there that I'm just not catching--searching the internet is so time-consuming! In fact, the only reason that I caught this one was because s/he made one interesting and rather unusual observation that was oddly like an observation made in another student's paper on the same subject. The papers are otherwise quite different, but the coincidence made me wonder whether they'd been reading the same source somewhere. . . and thus, Sparknotes.

I'm sure most of the academics out there in the blogosphere have dealt with plagiarists many a time, but this is my first unambiguous case--and it's sad- and angry-making at the same time.

[UPDATE: I talked to our DUS today, laid out the case and my proposed plan of action, and had it enthusiastically seconded. Love the DUS! So when I returned papers at the end of class today, I gave this student back her/his essay, to which I'd paperclipped the Sparknotes printout with all the relevant paragraphs highlighted and labeled with the corresponding essay page numbers--it was really a damning document by the time I worked my way through it. I also included a copy of my plagiarism policy from my syllabus, and wrote a short note informing the student that I was failing the paper, and s/he should be glad I wasn't failing her/him for the course and reporting this incident to the disciplinary committee (which is my official policy).

When the student came up to collect her/his paper, I just said, briefly, "If you have any questions, Student, you may email me." Student looked a little puzzled, but said, "uh, okay." And so far, nothing.]

link | posted by La Lecturess at 5:50 PM |


Blogger Bardiac commented at 6:22 PM~  

Plagiarists are a horrid pain. What's your school's policy for dealing with them?

The best thing I learned is to go completely by the book if you think it's real plagiarism (which this sounds like) rather than, oops, I missed citing someone properly. When someone covers up, it's usually a bad sign.

Good luck on it.

Blogger StyleyGeek commented at 6:36 PM~  

The problem with plagiarists who completely rewrite stuff before inserting it into their essays is they often don't realise that "still counts" as plagiarism (or claim not to, when you catch them).

I had one like that last year, and I couldn't bring myself to really throw the book at him as much as I probably should have (our dept policy is to give them no marks for the assignment, and put a note in their permanent record). I skipped the record thing and just failed him on the assignment. But there were many tears and protestations of ignorance.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 7:10 PM~  

My university appears to give instructors quite a lot of discretion in handling these events; they just want you to state your policy on your syllabus and to "consider" reporting violations to the disciplinary committee. So, I do have a very detailed policy on my syllabus, outlining both what counts as plagiarism and what the penalty is (failing the class).

I'm pretty certain there's no way this student could wiggle out of this one (s/he even included a Works Cited page, but guess what wasn't on it?), but since there are no precise line-to-line correspondences or chunks of text literally lifted, and since I'm new around these parts, I'm just failing the paper (giving it a zero), attaching the pages from Sparknotes with the offending passages highlighted, and telling the student he/she's lucky not to have me report him/her to the disciplinary committee. Of course, he/she will probably drop the class and live to plagiarize another day. . .

Anonymous What Now? commented at 7:14 PM~  

How demoralizing! Catching a plagiarist always depresses me and makes me look at all of my other students with suspicion, which is what I most resent.

And the most annoying thing is that if the student had written exactly the same paper but had simply given credit where credit is due, everything would be fine (at least from an academic honesty point of view). This is what I always find so frustrating about these students who aren't simply downloading an entire paper off the internet; they're actually doing research of a sort, and if they'd just treat it as research, there would be no problem. (One could maybe then point out scholarly versus non-scholarly sources, but basically no harm, no foul.)

Blogger Ianqui commented at 8:35 PM~  

I'd be curious to know what your plagiarizer's reaction is...

Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. commented at 9:29 PM~  

Actually, I suspect you're not missing too many plagiarists. In my experience, it's usually an act of desperation--which means that it's an act committed by clumsy people who can't write, whether because of time constraints or just plain inability. And most plagiarists aren't smart enough to plagiarize wholly--they insist on inserting plagiarized passages into papers, so that said papers read "Awful awful awful awful suddenly-lucid-and-grammatically-correct-and-suspiciously-differently-worded awful awful awful awful..." Easy to spot.

I sympathize with the despair and panic that produces plagiarism, but it's no good--you've got to flunk the paper, at least. It's depressing, but don't let it be *too* much so. Remember that students who plagiarize are students who don't really want to learn. And you can't teach the unwilling.

So you haven't failed in any way--some people just think of college as a four-year waiting period until they can do what they want. Said people don't see the value in making an effort in class. Said people cheat. Said people suck--it's usually just the suckage born of the stupidity of youth, but it sucks all the same. Again, whack them with the rolled-up-newspaper. The lesson that transforms us into adults is that Bad Choices Have Consequences. Learn 'em that lesson; it's the only thing to do.

Blogger Ancrene Wiseass commented at 10:13 PM~  

Ah, hell, LL. I'm sorry. Plagiarism sucks so much.

In case you haven't read it, this post from Cats and Dogma pretty much nails it in explaining why:


Maybe you'll find some solace in it? I did.

Anonymous Cardinal Fang commented at 11:30 PM~  

Wait a minute. What Now says citing the SparkNotes would have protected the student against the plagiarism charge. How can that be? If it's plagiarism, it's still plagiarism if the student cites the work. Citing the work one steals from does not inoculate the thief against plagiarism.

I take it the issue was not that some ideas were taken from SparkNotes, but that entire paragraphs from SparkNotes were rewritten. Nothing that has made it to SparkNotes counts as new and original and thus worthy of citation.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 11:52 PM~  

Cardinal F,

Welcome! No, I think that if the student had cited Sparknotes each and every time s/he used material taken from that source, it wouldn't be plagiarism. It be a crap paper, since it would be relying WAY too heavily on another source (not to mention a pretty dubious one), but the student might at least have earned a D instead of a zero.

And AW--thanks for the Dogma link. I hadn't read it. Good stuff!

Anonymous Cardinal Fang commented at 4:01 PM~  

OK, I'm still not clear on where the line is.

Let's say I'm writing a paper on los reyes catolicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, and I read in SparkNotes that Ferninand and Isabella were cousins, and their family controlled several different parts of Spain. I hadn't previously known that, but it's not any secret. If I put that in my paper without a footnote, it's plagiarism? (Let's leave aside the Works Cited for now.) Why do I have to footnote it if it's not originally from my source, and my source didn't footnote it?

Here's another example. I'm writing about the Divine Comedy, and I read a transcript of a lecture which points out that although Francesca claims that she wasn't at fault, she was a married woman alone with her brother-in-law reading something that at the time was regarded as akin to pornography. So I write in my paper that Francesca was justifying herself, but Dante the Poet wants us to realize that in fact she deserves exactly what she is getting, she condemned herself, and we, along with Dante the Pilgrim, shouldn't feel sorry for her. Footnote needed for this interpretation that I wouldn't have arrived at by myself, but that has been around for centuries?

Blogger Bardiac commented at 6:27 PM~  


The general "rule of thumb" that I use is that if you know it before you start the class, then you can consider the information "general knowledge" for you. If you learned it in the process of the class, then it's not general knowledge for you, but rather knowledge that you learned from someone else. You may learn if third or fourth hand, but you need to show where you learned it.

When in doubt, acknowledge a source of information, words, or ideas. An interpretation, especially, should always be cited if you can. But a date you may "know" as general knowledge.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 9:04 PM~  

Exactly what Bardiac said. When dealing with undergraduate papers, one generally has a pretty good idea of what they're likely to know and unlikely to know. Yes, it sometimes happens that a student has taken an advanced history class in the period that my lit survey covers, but even so, any information beyond a date or the outlines of a historical event are likely to be quite immediately, "from" somewhere: a textbook, their other professor's lectures, etc.

These standards are not the same for professional scholars, obviously, although even when I was in my first few years of grad school I scrupulously tried to cite a source for everything that I could, since I still felt that I didn't entirely own the material.

And I don't mean to be rude by asking this question, at all--but do you teach? Because really, once you've seen these things a few times, it's pretty obvious where the line needs to be drawn.

Thanks for you comments.

Anonymous Cardinal Fang commented at 2:49 AM~  

No, I don't teach at all.

I have no doubt that it's pretty obvious to you where the line needs to be drawn. Trouble is, it needs to be obvious to your students. And speaking as an occasional college student myself, I'm not finding that you're making it clear where that line is.

You seem to be saying that whether to footnote a piece of information depends not on the piece of information, but on the scholar who's footnoting it. That can't possibly be right. Whether the item is plagiarized doesn't depend on who writes the paper.

I have a son. I'm trying to teach him to write papers. He needs to know when he should footnote. If I tell him that he should footnote all and only those pieces of information he didn't already know when he started the class, he's going to end up getting it completely wrong. He loves history and already knows quite a bit about medieval Europe, but he's young and so his general knowledge is spotty. If he follows your rule, he'll footnote when he shouldn't and not footnote when he should.

(This is not to say that I doubt the initial post about the cheater. I'm sure the student did plagiarize.)

Blogger Bardiac commented at 5:09 PM~  

I'd suggest that you teach your son to focus on communicating accurately about where he gets words and ideas, and acknowledging other people's contributions. You never really go wrong citing or acknowledging sources.

The point is to help your reader know where s/he can find information and where you got information and ideas. Focus on citing as communication rather than as a problem, and your son should be fine.

Anonymous Cardinal Fang commented at 5:37 PM~  

Thanks, Bardiac. That's a good way to think about footnoting.

Blogger Bardiac commented at 9:17 PM~  

Thanks for the update, La Lecturess. I'm glad to hear it went so well.

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