Copyright/Plagiarism: August 2008 Archives

Living with Plagiarism

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As I have been reminding people recently I both maintain a plagiarism Web site and teach the occasional linguistics course. This is one of those times I'm glad to see an issue like plagiarism from multiple points of view.

Interestingly after teaching a few times, I have decided that the real solution isn't last-minute comparisons, but frequent interaction. So my tips, such as they are, include

  1. Frequent assignments - It is true that the more you see a student's work, the more likely you will spot an anomoly. In fact, blogging is one of the better tools because students really write in their own voices, and instructors see them, but may not have to grade the content in too much detail.

    I know this assumes a reasonably low student:faculty ratio which does not always happen here. Even so, I have been in a class of 50+ where plagiarism was detected - Overworked TAs can smell a rat even in a large data set.

  2. The early scare - Like John Harwood and others, I include a statement in the syllabus discuss the issue in the first day of class. The ultimate weapon of course is "I maintain the plagiarism site."

  3. Laying out collaboration rules - The great thing about collaboration is that students can learn from each other, but the bad thing is that they can get lazy also. My own personal rule has been "use your own words" (so that each student has to process some information). If nothing else, I learn who is studying together up front...in case anything weird happens later.

I think the ultimate lesson for me though is that plagiarism really may not pay for the student, even in the short term.

For instance, I questioned a student about copying a transcription from second student, but even if I hadn't caught it, that person would have scored worse...because the two dialects did not mesh. The original transcription was correct for the original speaker's dialect, but wrong for the other person. I knew that the student with the suspicious case totally missed the concept.

Another interesting case was a paper in which significant portions were cut and pasted from another source; I scored it as "missing quotations" since the reference was in the bibliography. Even if I had missed that one though - the paper would have scored low because the source materials were not meshed in well and was ultimately not very comprehensible.

I suspect I have been hosed a few times (for instance, there will be no more bathroom breaks for in-class exams), but overall I feel that I can worry less, because the results of plagiarism are amazingly shoddy in many cases.

Course Hero - The Study Site that's a Pyramid Scheme?

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The original discovery of this little gem goes to one of my Harrisburg colleagues who learned about it from an instructor. The site in question is Course Hero or "An Open Online Study Community", but note how the home page features quizzes, exam solutions and homework answers along with some actual lecture notes. Yes, I am a little paranoid especially since I have seen many suspicious study aids over the years.

But, since this was a new model, I thought I should investigate. First, I was interested to see that you can use your Facebook account to log in - I knew there was a reason to sign up. Once you log in, you can create a study profile identifying course number and instructor (presumably to find other online study mates). You can also enter in textbook information by ISBN-13 number (always get a textbook for class).

The interesting part happens when you click the Search button. At that point you find out that you have to "upgrade to a standard account" to view search results, and it offers several ways to do so. The first way is to upload your "study aid documents first" (5 for 1 month's access, 50 for unlimited access); the second is to invite your Facebook or AIM buddies (50 friends for one month or 200 friends for one year); or thirdly you could pay a monthly fee. And this is where I feel that "pyramid scheme" applies, because to avoid paying a fee you have to contribute resources (content or people), but if your friends want to avoid paying, they have to find more friends or content...or else. The only thing missing is your cut of the profits (although presumably you will have access to an ever-growing set of resources, possibly forever.

This model is interesting, and it probably works, but I would be leery of joining any service before I had gotten a chance to really look at the search results first. For one thing, I was seriously considering uploading 5 junk documents just to get an in-depth view of my hypothetical search results, and I may not be the only person with this idea. Even worse, I could have "joined" only to find that my search results were empty AFTER I uploaded/paid/sucked in friends. Seems like a real rip-off to me.

The other questionable aspect, of course, is the posting of exam and homework solutions. Hmmm. Sample tests can be helpful study tools...if the instructor chooses to post them, but since the sources on the homepage are set to "anonymous", I'm not sure the instructor is posting anything. Which is where another colleague mentioned copyright issues.

But I suspect that Course Hero is structured like YouTube in that they let users post anything they want and wait for any take-down notices to arrive at their doorstep (I'm sure it's all stated in the user agreement somewhere). In the meantime, all the solutions are available to you under a "Creative Commons" license...assuming that you ever get access to them.