Plagiarism Above the Fold! Cheating Justice in the Digital Age
It’s early December, end of the fall 2011 semester. What’s above the fold in the paper version of the Sunday edition of New Jersey’s biggest paper, The Star Ledger?
- Herman Cain suspending his presidential campaign?
- In-depth coverage of the case against now disgraced former governor Jon Corzine and now former CEO of MF Global?
- A Rutgers student’s effort to clear her name of plagiarism?
Plagiarism, of course.
The timing is perfect. Just as pressure is rising during finals and the temptation to cut corners is at its highest, the Ledger reaches out to its readers with this headline:
Rutgers case casts spotlight on plagiarism in the Internet Age
Student says software used by her school was mistaken when it flagged her work
The headline in the online version lowers the point size and makes a more modest claim about the importance of the case in question:
Former Rutgers student says software detecting plagiarism was wrong when it flagged her work, caused her to fail
Within 24 hours, the online discussion of the article generates more than 140 table-pounding comments, including a number by Amanda Serpico, the RU grad whose tribulations are at the center of the piece.
Amanda Serpico’s long journey through Rutgers’ disciplinary process began
after her instructor ran one of her papers through Turnitin,
anti-plagiarism software increasingly used by colleges and schools.
(Original copy with image.)
Here’s the case in brief:
In December 2010, while home for the holiday break, Ms. Serpico received an email from the teacher of her “Argumentation” course notifying her that her final paper, “Lifting the ban on same-sex marriage in Texas,” had been flagged by for plagiarism by the online service Turnitin.com.
Via email, Ms. Serpico vehemently denied the charges.
Her teacher, a doctoral student, revised his assessment of how much of the paper was plagiarized and what the original sources plagiarized were, but otherwise stood his ground.
Ms. Serpico appealed the charge, acknowledging only that she had failed to include internal citations, while maintaining that all her sources were correctly listed on her works cited page.
Ms. Serpico’s appeal was denied; she received an F in the course; and this prevented her from graduating as a double major in exercise science/sports management and communications.
Although Ms. Serpico did graduate as planned with her major in exercise science/sport management and is currently pursuing an advanced degree in sports management at Florida State, she and her parents are exploring their legal options on the grounds that Rutgers’ judicial process is flawed and that the university didn’t follow its own internal procedures in handling Ms. Serpico’s case.
So, why is this story above the fold?
- It’s the flesh and blood individual (Ms. Serpico) vs. mindless technology (Turnitin.com)
- It’s Davida (the vulnerable student) vs. Goliath (the state university’s faceless bureaucratic judicial process)
- It’s the (possibly) FALSELY ACCUSED within the larger context of CHEATING CHEATERS WHO CHEAT (344 in total accused at RU in 2009-2010, according to the article)
I can see the Ledger’s rationale for giving this story pride of place on a slow news day. It’s Ms. Serpico’s willing participation in publicizing her fate at the hands of the Rutgers judicial system that is incomprehensible to me. Sure, the idealist will say, “It’s the principle of it all,” or even,”Let justice be done though the heavens fall!” The pragmatist, on the other hand, asks: “what do I stand to lose by going forward?”
And the student of writing on the web? I ask, rhetorically, win or lose, what’s the guaranteed outcome for the plaintiff?
The digital tattoo.
The not good kind.
The kind that forever links your name and the word “plagiarism” in the permanent, public, universally-accessible record that is the web.
So, the way the article pitches it, to side with the student, we need to see that there’s a problem with Turnitin, which provides the service of scanning each submitted paper to find similar passages anywhere else on the web. What does this mean, exactly?
The demo video at Turnitin.com, home of “the global leader in addressing plagiarism and delivering rich feedback,” shows how it has revolutionized the process of assessing student writing. In the demo, the student paper “To Speak or To Sign” is fed into Turnitin’s database and, presto, a report is generated that reveals that 31% of the paper is composed of material that has a direct match elsewhere in the Turnitin database or on the Web.
Turnitin color-codes each matched source. So, in the example above, scrolling over the highlighted red passage in the paper brings up the matching passage, also highlighted in red, from the original source, hearingloss.org.
Helpfully, Turnitin also includes a function that automatically identifies common grammatical errors, highlighting the mistakes and providing a link to a definition of the identified error (e.g. run on, frag, etc.):
Grammatical errors (l) and grading rubrics (r).
Finally, Turnitin provides a feature where the instructor can input the “rubrics” for assessing each assignment. Then, grading each paper is just a matter of clicking on the appropriate score for each component of the assessment. So, in this instance, the student writing on that pressing question, “To Speak or To Sign,” is assessed for “development,” “structure,” “layout/design,” and “sources.” Once the teacher clicks the appropriate scores, which only display here in increments of ten, Turnitin provides a final tally.
Seems pretty straightforward, no?
Well, upon closer inspection, the assessment of the exemplary “To Speak or To Sign” seems a little odd. To begin with, apparently, despite Turnitin’s determination of 31% match for content here, the instructor deemed this “paper” worthy of a grade of 65/95 for “sources.”
Doesn’t that seem, well, arbitrary? One out of every three words comes from elsewhere is a 65? What happens when it’s two out of every three? Is that a 55?
The sense that there’s something arbitrary in Denmark is visually reinforced by the fact that the instructor (or perhaps the program itself) designated the top score in each category to be 95 not 100. Consequently, despite the fact that the average of the scores in the highlighted blue boxes is 75, “the rubric percentage” for this paper assigned both above and below the boxes is 79% (75 out of 95).
Doubtless, one is not meant to actually pay this kind of attention (which I would define as reading for meaning) to the Turnitin demo video. Rather, one is meant to marvel at the increasing power of machine reading and to overlook the fact that what is being assessed actually need never have been written in the first place. If one also succeeds in ignoring the crude division of the assessment scale and also manages to turn a blind eye to the design flaws in Turnitin’s own presentation (a paper that owes 31% of its content to other sources and averages a straight score of 75 in the four identified categories gets a high C+?), then this seems like a great improvement over ye olde grade booke.
It’s TECHNOLOGY. It catches CHEATERS. It makes grading FASTER, EASIER, almost AUTOMATIC!
Arbitrariness is also there to be found in the Serpico story, but not where you’d expect (it’s undercover, yo!). While Turnitin’s demo inadvertently reinforces the common perception that, no matter what the syllabus claims or what the teacher says, grading student work is an arbitrary affair, Ms. Serpico’s story finds arbitrariness at the very core of Turnitin’s operation–the detection of matches between documents.
How could this be?
According to the Star-Ledger piece, the initial charge of plagiarism rested on Turnitin’s having:
concluded 53 percent of her nine-page paper may have been lifted from the internet, other publications or other student papers. The computer-generated Turnitin report cited passages in Serpico’s paper that were similar to sentences found on 35 websites, blogs and other sources, including the New York Times website, a tennis players’ message board, a site about Eskimos and a student paper submitted by a high school student in Arizona.
A site about Eskimos?
In a paper on the scintillating topic of same-sex marriage in Texas? Hmmm. Gay eskimos seeking to move to Texas, blogging about the ban on same sex marriage in the state? There’s a lot of crazy stuff out there on the interpipes, so there may well be a site for gay Eskimos eager to lob gay snowballs at homophobic Texas, but how could such a site produce material that migrated into Ms. Serpico’s paper?
It’s not a straight line between those two dots is all I’m saying.
Weirdly, we’re next told that Ms. Serpico’s teacher revised his assessment of the problems with her paper on New Year’s Eve (a not irrelevant detail). Now, his story was that:
he found three passages that were lifted word-for-word from a gay rights website, a Yale University student’s blog and an online journal about gay politics.
More plausible sources for the plagiarist, to be sure, but a dramatic shift nonetheless: you’ve plagiarized from 35, er 3, sources.
It’s at this point that the story goes one way and I go another. Ms. Serpico wants readers to pay attention to the injustice of her having been judged a plagiarist, but I can’t really have an opinion on the matter without having seen the paper in question. And Kelly Heyboer, the Star Ledger reporter who wrote this piece, wants both for her readers to see how the introduction of technology to the grading process has dramatically increased the number of cheating cases at the university and for them to put a face to one of those cases.
But, I don’t really see this as a story about plagiarism or Turnitin. I see it as a story about how writing itself is being transformed by the transition from a print-centric, paper-based world to a digital, screen-based world. Admittedly, that’s not a headline that keeps this story above the fold, but that’s the difference between writing that sensationalizes and writing that is in search of insight. Institutions never admit they’re wrong: that’s not exactly surprising. Focusing on this familiar story, though, and drinking in the rage blinds everyone to what is actually going down in the world of literacy.
Here’s one way to think of the difference.
Not long ago, if you applied for a job, you supplied a list of references to your prospective employer. You’d vet the list ahead of time and trust your referees to cast you in the best light if contacted by some HR drone. Sometimes that trust was misplaced, to be sure, but in the main you exercised a significant measure of control over what information initially made it into the hands of your prospective employer.
Your prospective employer can type your name into Google. If you have a common name (John Jones, Drashti Patel), a little detective work is called for. But if you have a less common name, a little less detective work is called for.
If, for example, your name is “Amanda Serpico,” and your prospective employer typed that into Google today, here are the first four hits:
The first hit is the Facebook page of a different Amanda Serpico. A month ago, further down the list, you’d get the Facebook page of the Amanda Serpico of this story, with a profile picture of her in the arms of a young man, but that link is now unavailable via Google (though it appears as a live link on Ms. Serpico’s profile at the Star Ledger). Ms. Serpico’s LinkedIn page, providing her professional work history to date, the face she’d prefer to show the world, appears as the fourth link.
If you clicked on this link, you’d learn about Ms. Serpico’s work history. You’d see that she worked throughout her time at Rutgers, most recently as a bartender at Cheeseburger in Paradise, where she “[e]nsured satisfactory customer experience by utilizing bar flair and beer tossing.” You’d see that she had an internship with the New Jersey Jackals, where she worked on game day promotions. And you’d see that she’s been involved in a couple of research projects involving sports management now that she’s working on her Masters. More likely that not, you’d conclude she’s hard-working, focused.
In between the first link and the fourth? Two articles that place Ms. Serpico’s name and plagiarism side-by-side, both posted on plagiarismtoday.com.
Is that good?
Further down the Google search, there’s a link to the original Star-Ledger article, where Ms. Serpico’s name appears repeatedly in the proximity of the word “plagiarism.” And below that there’s a link to the comments on the original article, where Pavlovian-trained responders salivated and snarled for two full days, tossing bits of the story in the air and fighting over the scraps until the next outrage appeared on the horizon demanding their rapt and rabid attention (e.g., “In futile search for drugs, Pompton Lakes police inflict $12K worth of damage,” 514 comments and counting).
Is that good?
Ms. Serpico valiantly enters the netherworld of online commenting in an effort to clear up the commentors’ misconceptions, but in the court of public opinion, everyone in this drama gets put in the stocks and pelted with garbage–Ms. Serpico, her teachers, public education, the university, the student judicial system, sports management as a college major, Turnitin, unions, Chris Christie, Michelle Obama, Barak Obama.
While the rotten tomatoes rain down, Ms. Serpico sticks to her story, each of her nine (!) responses accompanied by this thumbnail image:
In terms of argumentation, is the addition of this visual element a good idea?
When a commenter notes that a degree in communications is “probably not worth the toilet paper it’s printed on in the real world,” Ms. Serpico wades in, noting:
“Well, it’s a good thing then, that I got a BS I’m Exercise Science.”
It’s not a great opening gambit, since it includes a misplaced comma and a typo. As a rule, mistakes of this kind aren’t red-lined by Star Ledger’s online community. But this is a story that involves writing conventions, so mycrazynj fires back this blistering response:
Amanda, True since your grammar and punctuation are atrocious. A repeat of third grade may be in order.
When Ms. Serpico replies with a rhetorical question, “Ever heard of iPhone auto correct?” mycrazynj is ready:
You need to take responsibility and not blame others for things you do wrong (including your phone). I do believe you can override autocorrect…
A bit of back and forth between the commenters over the standards governing correctness in commenting follows and some attempt to argue that the university let a “teachable moment” pass. Then Hannah_Dougherty_269 weighs in to say that learning how to cite sources takes place in the first year of high school, that Rutgers “is not exactly known for having highly motivated students,” and that Ms. Serpico most likely spent her four years “doing some extra curricular activities that were more fun” than studying.
This hits a raw nerve. Ms. Serpico tries to set the record straight: her major was very demanding; no minor was required; she worked 30-35 hours a week for two years while going to school full time; her schoolwork filled all the spare time she had.
Recall, this statement appears beneath this thumbnail:
mycrazynj is right there:
Is your picture from work or school?
Ms. Serpico declines to address the status of her profile picture. Her fourth comment is a reposting of her third comment with most of the typos removed.
Ms. Serpico’s detractors are right back up in her grill. She’s a “whiner,” “the lawsuit hungry type,” someone future employers will shun after doing an Internet search on her name.
A couple of hours pass, but Ms. Serpico has not fled the field; she’s regrouped and posts a 500 word reply to “clarify some things about [her] case.” She maintains that “[e]verything was cited within [the] text AS WELL AS on the reference page” (caps in original). She repeats that Rutgers did not follow its own procedures in handling either the original charge of plagiarism against her or her appeal of this charge. Then she makes her closing argument:
I will not take responsibility for something I know I did not do. All of my source were cited within the paper. I cannot take blame for other blogs and internet sites who happen to use the same information from legitimate, academic sources. Readers can continue to make assumptions about my lifestyle or study habits, or even my family to supporting me through all of this, but until you know the entire situation, or God forbid, actually read the paper, I suggest you stop coming up with obscure accusations about the situation.
The ironies and paradoxes multiply with every exchange:
- Ms. Serpico failed her class in “argumentation,” (I think the quotation marks are well-advised), only to find herself entangled in the unwinnable task of arguing her defense first through the filter of a news story and then directly with anonymous commenters who may or may not have read the original article.
- Her failing of the “argumentation” class cost her the final credits required to major in communications, but her online actions raise questions about the content of a communications major.
- She’s surprised that the commenters are generating “obscure accusations about the situation,” but can only advise that they withhold judgment until a moment that will never arrive–namely, the moment when they have “actually read the paper.”
I was going to say that there’s no pleasure in watching a car wreck, but as soon as I had this thought my mind flooded with images from all the movies that assume there is, in fact, no greater pleasure than the pleasure the audience takes in the car wreck. Tom Cruise rolls out of one car that then roars head on into another, the crash itself concealed by the sand storm, the other car suddenly in view, cartwheeling overhead, screeching by. There is no driver. Cruise runs into the sandstorm and the chase continues.
The difference, of course, is that you know no one is actually getting hurt in all these spectacular explosions. It’s just Tom Cruise, playing whatever his character’s name is in whatever installment of Mission Impossible.
Real life isn’t quite so spectacular. A young woman, armed only with a felt sense of injustice, takes her case public.
What happens next isn’t pretty. Guilty or innocent, Ms. Serpico has unwittingly exposed herself to stinging public ridicule. But, more importantly, she has created a digital tattoo that will forever link her to one moment in her college career –a moment when she was found to have plagiarized a paper, a moment, had Ms. Serpico remained quiet, that only a handful of people would ever have known about.
With every additional online response, Ms. Serpico only makes the problem worse, because whatever she loads up to the Internet is treated by her readers as fair game to do with as they please. And, according to the conventions of the comment section of the Star Ledger, that means, by and large, that Ms. Serpico is inviting a hailstorm of ridicule.
For a while, it seems that Ms. Serpico realizes this. Having once more insisted on her innocence, she goes silent.
Which makes no difference, of course. The comments continue without her, ridiculing, mocking, hallucinating.
And then, improbably, Pater Serpico takes a seat at the keyboard.
Ms. Serpico’s Dad? Really?
Is that a good idea?
Whether or not it’s a good idea (visions of the weeping daughter, the distressed father rising to the occasion, and the voice, off stage, unheeded: “No, no. Don’t. Don’t do it), there’s Mr. Serpico reiterating the family’s position that Rutgers did not follow its own procedures and that it has been unresponsive to the family’s pleas for an explanation ever since. And then there’s Mr. Serpico closing with this explanation for why they have continued to press the case:
We have felt Amanda was unfarily judged and we have asked Rutgers and their attorny time and time again to address Amanda’s appeal letter and tell us where she is incorrect in her defense. We were never allowed that opportunity. Rutgers is a beaucratic bully and someone needed to stand up to them and tell them they cant treat their students this way.
For a moment, Mr. Serpico’s appearance on the scene stuns everyone and the current of comments briefly trends towards sympathy for Ms. Serpico, but not for long. Why? Because most commenters don’t read what other commenters have written. The “conversation,” as such, moves on to RU fraternities, RU’s impenetrable bureaucracy, and the notorious RU Screw (a local phrase for the Kafkaesque interface between the outmatched RU student and the all powerful RU bureaucracy).
Soon enough, though, the commenters are back to arguing Ms. Serpico’s culpability. molls114 lets this rant fly:
What a sad state NJ’s education system is in, this poor girl still does not understand that she cheated. You can’t copy whole paragraphs of someone else’s work, then just put a website on your works cited page at the end. Here is a clue, the heading works cited means that you should have cited the url after the phrases you mentioned. If I copied this whole article, and just pasted the url at the end, that’s plagiarism. Silly, stupid girl.
Those who are pulling for Ms. Serpico and are hoping–nay, praying!–that she has learned to let such comments pass will surely cringe, as I did, upon learning that Ms. Serpico once again charged into the gauntlet-littered field. In this, her final comment, Ms. Serpico briefly rehearsing her defense and then concludes, gauntlet in hand:
Everything was formally, and correctly cited within text as well as on my works cited page. Also, i would appreciate if you do not make nasty comments about me. Calling me “silly” and “stupid” is extremely petty. Without reading my paper, I suggest you stop making uninformed accusations and assumptions.
A dozen comments follow, all weighing in, on one side or the other, regarding Ms. Serpico’s culpability, all doing so without having access to her paper. And then, finally, the string of comments comes to an end.
Make an argument.
What does that mean, really?
Write a research paper.
And this familiar assignment. What does it mean?
In school, writing is understood, first and foremost, as the vehicle for argumentation.
- Sign language vs. lip-reading.
- Repealing the ban on same sex marriages in Texas.
- The practice of caning as an instance of culture difference.
Whatever the hackneyed topic, the “research” “paper” is understood to be the handmaiden of the argument; it’s the process of “finding” “support” for your “argument.”
To streamline the process, the messy business of thinking is set to the side. And what’s left is the mechanical, orderly business of assembling various blobs of text according to one rubric or another and, presto!, you’ve got this thing called an argument which, more often than not, is a thesis, three examples, and a conclusion.
Do arguments work in the real world?
Has argumentation mattered here? With access to the original text foreclosed, anyone can say anything. Innocence can’t be established; an injustice can’t be documented; judgments of guilt can’t be refuted. It’s all sound and fury. All the time.
In the age of paper, it was easier to conceal the emptiness of such exercises. The teacher could gesture to the library, invoke “the profession,” insist upon strict adherence to a set of standards (Chicago Manual of Style) or a set of personal preferences disguised as the very nuts and bolts of sweet Reason itself (Strunk and White). It was all practice for some endlessly deferred future moment where the well-honed argument would finally be called for: the board meeting, the town hall, the Supreme Court.
In the digital age, all practice exercises are now potentially permanent entries in the public record. This has immeasurable significance for the process of learning. How will education change once there are no more private spaces? In the privacy of the classroom, one can try out ideas. But, what about in the classroom where everything that is said aloud can be recorded and immediately distributed globally?
Writing committed to paper can potentially be contained. Books can be banned; books can be burned. But what about writing that is released into the cloud? Whether or not you accept my contention that argumentation as taught in the past was at best an idealized fiction about how language works, we can agree that the status of argumentation is now in play. Is argumentation possible now that information is all around us and all those who have access to the Internet have the potential to add their voices to the deafening cacophony? Parodies can go viral. Doing yoga with cats can go viral. But can an argument?
In the second half of this meditation, I explore the issue of plagiarism and virality from another direction altogether: I track the story of a private email that made its way into the public domain. To keep reading about plagiarism, click here
If you’d like to download a pdf of this post, you may do so my visiting this page.
The online version of the Star Ledger article on cheating at Rutgers may be found here
The photo of Ms. Serpico included in the Ledger piece is credited to: Danielle Richards, Special to the Star-Ledger
The screen shots of the Turnitin.com demo video come from the video currently on Turnitin’s homepage, which may be found here
The quote from Amanda Serpico’s LinkedIn page may be found here
The comments on the Star Ledger story, including Ms. Serpico’s responses, may be found here.