September 19, 2007
Blogs and Plagiarism
I check my sitemeter intermittently to see what searches land people over here. The results usually surprise me: not long ago I noticed that a lot of people seemed to end up here because they were looking for information on Margaret Oliphant, for instance, and lately a lot of people are looking for information on James Wood, on Brick Lane, and on Black and Blue. There is, of course, no way to know why people are searching these topics (though I think it's safe to assume it's not because they are anxious to know what I in particular have to say about them). Now, though, I'm seeing signs of the new academic term being underway--or at least, that's what it looks like--as more searches appear to come from students looking to get a little direct 'help' with their homework. Someone recently Googled "conclusion for emotional/moral paper," for instance, and ended up at my post on George Eliot and non-belief, while another Googled "revision questions Middlemarch" and ended up at my post on A.S. Byatt. Of course, I can't be sure that the former was hoping to find a conclusion for a paper s/he was supposed to write, or that the latter was hoping to answer whatever questions had been provided. Like many Google search strings, these ones are elliptical and ambiguous. And I don't expect that these (or other searchers with impure intentions) find much help on this site--these ones didn't stay long, anyway, which I incline to think is a good sign. But this has prompted me to think more about something that worried me when I began doing this, namely whether by blogging I am contributing to the problem of plagiarism that plagues me in my more formal role as a teacher and professional. I see that Acephalous and his commenters have been over this territory as well, and in particular over the problem that apparently TurnItIn.Com does not do well at catching blog posts. One suggestion made was that bloggers should stick to a 'bloggy' style, so that bits cut and pasted into supposedly formal assignments would stand out; the reasonable response was, basically, that academic bloggers hope to generate high quality material, and insisting on a highly colloquial style or otherwise restricting the character or form of blog posts would defeat that aim. Given all the other information readily available online, I guess I don't see that blogging literary texts (or potential essay topics) really gives would-be plagiarists that much more to work with / steal from. But teachers should presumably be aware that TurnItIn is not a one-size-fits-all solution and that you should also run key phrases through search engines yourself. I also recently heard an interesting story about plagiarism running the other way, from someone's published work to someone's blog--though what someone would achieve by turning things around that way rather eludes me. In any case, students should be aware that if they can find a source on the Internet, so can their instructors, and also that if their instructors post course-related material on a blog, they will almost certainly recognize their own ideas or phrases if their students incorporate them into their assignments.