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.


Michael said...

I have been blogging, on and off, for several years now. I often take it on as a very serious committment with an obligation to offer insightful "content" on whatever subject I may be pursuing.

In the beginning, I was afraid that my thoughts/opinions/statements could never be up to par, that they would be construed as either too arrogant, too ignorant, or simply presumptuous. Now that I've jumped over that insecure hurdle, I find myself wrestling with an issue that you have touched on today - a blogger's implicit contribution to a system that so easily allows others to plagiarise.

I've thought of ways to combat those who might think that my blog content really is good enough to lift for their own papers, from always speaking informally to publishing only in .pdf (if only to make the act of plagiarism more difficult), or to simply not publishing at all. A few friends have chosen the last option, which bothers me almost as much as the act of plagiarism itself. I dread the day that our fears and annoyance of plagiarism become so strong that it could so easily shut down our collective will to create and share knowledge and information.

It really is much easier to plagiarise today than it might have been several years ago - the shift toward a digital culture makes it far too easy to cut and paste and trim and copy data or information. I wonder if it is the price we have to pay (not a small price, by any means), however, for all the benefits that The Internet (tm), computing and digital humanities ultimately offers to our field.


Rohan Maitzen said...

I strongly agree with your point about not letting concerns about plagiarism dominate decisions we make about our other work--I have often felt this way when confronted with the argument that students plagiarize because professors don't bother to design assignments that are artful and original enough. How much of our curriculum or pedagogy should be driven by the assumption that our students are dishonest, rather than by questions of substance and pedagogical goals?

While it is true that digital media have made plagiarism much simpler in many ways, it is also (ironically) true that they have made it easier to combat--though often (in my experience) harder to spot at first: the great giveaway used to be the sudden leap in sophistication in an assignment when a student tried to blend in excerpts from a scholarly book or article, whereas now a lot of their sources are just as bland or inarticulate as honest B or C essays.