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.

8 Replies to “Plagiarism”

  1. One of my own papers was submitted to SIGCOMM 2010 by some authors from a random university in India. (Actually, they never submitted the full paper – just the abstract. If they had tried to submit the full paper I would have been sure to sign up to review it!)

    At Harvard, we have a partial solution for the problem of having to deal with students that cheat — we take it out of the instructor’s hands. Any student caught cheating is sent to the University ‘administrative board’ that collects the evidence, interviews the student, and renders a judgment. In the case of plagiarism, the sentence is harsh — the student fails the class and is forced to withdraw from the University for a year. The advantage of this approach is that the instructor is not required to make the decision.

    Last term I had about ten students who were all caught borrowing code for one of their assignments from an online source. It turns out that the solution for the assignment was readily Googleable (though we didn’t know it). That didn’t make it OK for them to take the online code, of course, but I was hesitant to fail all of these students. Instead I offered them a choice: they could take a zero on the assignment in question, or they could argue their case to the Ad Board (which could have conceivably absolved the student of any wrongdoing). Unsurprisingly all of the students took the zero. We’ll clearly need to update the assignment next year.

  2. Hey Matt– I like the idea of the administrative board, this sounds really helpful. However, the version of this at UVA (the honor committee) is reputed to be a disaster due to a “single sanction” rule: they either kick you out of school, or the matter is dropped. This means that the vast majority of cases go unpunished.

    Your story about ten students is incredible. What are people thinking?

  3. Grumpy old man alert: Do you guys feel that due to the internet, plagiarism is more common (and maybe more “accepted”) than it used to be, say, ~20 years ago?

    I don’t know. It just seems that it must be rampant. It’s so easy to lift the work of others.

    It’s a good think I’m not a prof. I would probably stay up late at night looking for anomalies, instead of spending time w/ my family or reading a good book.

    I know this sounds cliche, and to a student with a focus on “getting the grade”, this would sound silly… but when your parents are (usually) at least helping foot the bill, and your very ability to survive depends on your performance in the classroom, why would you cheat, instead of applying yourself?

    That’s rhetorical, but as someone who *wishes* he had the time & financial freedom to just go back to school & learn about history, philosopy, economics, and maybe a little more of that technical stuff, I just don’t understand the shortcut to incompetence. (Let’s google that 3-word phrase in a couple months!)

    The most valuable thing, by far and away, that I learned in university was how to work my ass off. In spite of incredibly difficult problem sets, in spite of exhaustion from athletics, in spite of other more “fun” activities.

    It’s a shame some students are so short-sighted as to deprive themselves of such a valuable opportunity.

  4. Whoops “good thing”, not “good think”. At least no one will accuse me of lifting that awful writing from someone else.

  5. Hi Dan- I have no idea if plagiarism is more prevalent now. Perhaps so, but this is really hard to measure. It’s sort of an arms race with the internet making it easier to cheat, and also making it easier to catch cheaters.

    In any case, the vast majority of students are hardworking and get as pissed off at plagiarism as you or I do, if not more.

  6. Hi John
    The first thing that struck me when I read about plagiarism of web content was this startup a friend of mine works for called Attributor ( They do this at larger scales and it is conceivable that one day they have more accessible services for the individual blogger etc.


  7. Hi Karthik- Thanks, Attributor sounds cool. Of course, given that I make no money from this blog, I doubt that I’d be willing to pay much (if anything) for this kind of service…


  8. I don’t know about the internet making plagarism easier, but it’s certainly made _finding_ it easier as well. At my university (Edinburgh Napier, UK), we’re required to submit essays to which does a search for possible plagarism (of course it requires human checking of the results)

    There are a wide number of punishments available (and in a plagarism workshop, most studends reccommended punishments more severe than the case studies actually got) and it’s definately a subject that’s drummed into us, which is at it should be.

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