A few years ago, I ran across an entire academic paper that was plagiarized. I was gratified when alerting the (original) author of the paper started a chain of events that eventually lead to the pirated paper being retracted. Another time, I was reviewing a paper and said to myself something like “that paragraph was really well written.” Then I realized why I liked it: I had written the paragraph myself in an earlier paper. Needless to say this paper was rejected with extreme prejudice. As these anecdotes indicate, as a researcher I’ve found plagiarism to be pretty easy to deal with. Since every conference proceedings or journal has a well-known “owner” who is loosely responsible for the integrity of its contents, it suffices to let this person know about the potential problem.
Web-based plagiarism is more difficult. For example, in an article about the C language’s volatile qualifier, Nigel Jones showed a nice turn of phrase when he said that declaring everything as volatile is a bad idea “since it is essentially a substitute for thought.” A few weeks ago, while looking for Nigel’s article, I did a Google search on his phrase and was surprised to see how many matches turned up. Clicking on these links, it turns out that most have not acknowledged Nigel as the original author. Rather, people who posted the material appear to be taking credit for it. Since Nigel’s article is quite good, finding one or two copies of it wouldn’t be surprising, but ten copies does seem a bit much. What can we do about web-based plagiarism? When the plagiarized content lives in a third-party site (e.g. Wikipedia) it may help to complain. If plagiarism occurs on a site hosted by an individual, it is probably very difficult to deal with.
My worst experiences with plagiarism have been as an instructor. The problem is that prosecuting instances of plagiarism, even when it is done properly, is time consuming and very stressful. It’s not that institutional support is totally lacking — the U’s Student Code outlines a reasonable implementation of academic sanctions — but rather that the actual process of telling students that they’re going to fail a class because they cheated is hard. One possibility is a tearful confession followed by pleas for mercy (and sometimes, by pleas from parents and other relatives, especially if the failing grade delays the student’s graduation). Another possibility is the student who denies everything, making life difficult because it becomes a bit of a he-said/she-said game. Fortunately, I’ve never been involved with a case where lawyers came into the picture, but I’ve heard this can happen. In the end, the simplest course of action for overworked instructors is to not try very hard to find instances of plagiarism by students. My guess is that this is the implicit choice made by most teachers because, unfortunately, it seems that if one looks for plagiarism very hard, one tends to find it.