• December 20, 2014

Successful Plagiarism 101

CSI: Plagiarism 1

William Brown for The Chronicle

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close CSI: Plagiarism 1

William Brown for The Chronicle

The other day, a student came into the writing center with an essay that she had "written" for her final project. I was a page into it when I understood that it had been horrendously plagiarized, and that I was being used as a preliminary screening service to see if the blatant theft would pass her professor's eye unnoticed.

Of course, I knew it would. The professor wasn't particularly perceptive about such things, and, frankly, almost every research paper that I had seen for his course had been plagiarized to one degree or another. He taught in the business school and knew a great deal about managing people and businesses but practically nothing about writing or the proper use of sources.

Perhaps he didn't really care. He once asked me to "look over" a manuscript and "check it for grammar." When I found serious structural and content inconsistencies, I felt obligated to inform him. But he self-published the manuscript anyway in its original, unadulterated format.

Still, the professor's student was in front of me with her beautifully articulated copy-and-pasted essay that had undoubtedly originated from some poor doctoral student's dissertation and contained words like "adjudicated" and "prevaricates." I had been tutoring her for weeks at the writing center. I would have loved to believe that the essay was her own work, and that she had made astonishing progress in her writing, due mostly to my own impeccable instruction. However, I had to admit that the leap was, in fact, impossible given the condition of her previous week's work—a narrative essay that had been filled with confused articles, mixed prepositions, sentence fragments, and nonparallel structures, among other problems.

So I had a dilemma. As an educator, I knew there was no earthly way this student could produce a genuine five-page research essay (by tomorrow) with her current skill set. But as a fellow human, I also felt sorry that she had been passed along and never adequately prepared for college-level writing, never shown how to read, how to summarize, or how to select quotes.

What was my responsibility here as her tutor? Clearly, the only reasonable thing to do was to give her a lesson on plagiarism and sternly explain how she might be a better plagiarist in the future.

To start with, I told her, her theme seemed curious to me because it dealt with the inner workings of "lean manufacturing" as it applied to the mass production of bioelectronics. I warned her that the complexity of her topic choice might raise an astute professor's brow. More than one student plagiarist has been apprehended trying to pass off as his own work a Marxist reading of Willy Loman, or a metrical analysis of Yeats's "Among School Children," when the student should have been describing Loman as a pathetic loser or comparing Yeats to a jelly doughnut.

Worse, she had plagiarized a source that was well beyond her syntactical command. It was obvious from word choice and sentence construction that the essay had been written by someone with a profound understanding of the Efficiency Movement of the early 20th century. A professor attuned to plagiarism, I told her, would immediately pick up on obscure words and phrases as signs of plagiarism, and would retrieve the evidence from the Web.

A properly plagiarized essay, however, would contain no obscure Latinate terminology. Every word would be three syllables or less. The sentences would be basic, with maybe a few of the compound variety, but no complex ones under any circumstances, and absolutely no idioms. Not only did her use of obscure language make the offense more glaring, but it also made reworking the paper a near impossibility as no contemporary thesaurus would be helpful in suggesting alternate wording for technical phrases.

The student agreed and promised to avoid any syntactically complicated sources in future plagiarisms. However, that was only the tip of her problem, as I went on to inform her, because even if she had chosen a source with a somewhat basic paragraph and sentence structure, she would still need to rearrange the lexicon to make it mirror her own vernacular so that the professor wouldn't be alarmed by the disparity between her speech and her writing style.

For that reason, certain portions of the essay needed to be altered regardless of their grammatical correctness. In fact, I advised her, a grammatical inconsistency would go a long way toward boosting her credibility as an "original author" and dispel any hints of plagiarism. I suggested that she misspell every few words or remove an occasional article, out of principle.

In addition, the quotations must not be seamlessly integrated into the research. To give the essay more authenticity, I suggested she remove the introduction to every third quote, and neglect explanations altogether so that the quotes would stand out like little quarantined strangers in her essay. Better yet, she could replace every fifth quote with a line from Disney's Fantasia, or at the very least, with a text message so as to create the impression of authorial distraction or perhaps technological interlude. Maybe she could insert a "2" for "too," a "B" for "be," or an emoticon or an LOL in place of a genuine emotional response.

Still, no matter how she reworded it, an entirely plagiarized essay would always appear as a unified whole and, thus, raise suspicion in an alert professor due to its very consistency. The professor would ask: "Where are the essay's digressions? Where are its disconnected paragraphs?"

And so I told her that to be truly thorough in her plagiarism, she actually needed to copy from a variety of sources so that the inconsistency in voice would appear genuine to the academic reader. In addition, since structuring such a sophisticated act of plagiarism would be a near impossibility for the student, the inevitable mixed bag that resulted would undoubtedly replicate with accuracy a struggling student's writing.

I conceded, however, that the effort required to produce such a convincing act of plagiarism would not be substantially less than the effort required to produce an honest research paper.

So she was really left with one choice: Find a student with almost identical skills who had taken the course the previous semester with a different professor. Pay that student for all of his or her semester's work, and then pass it off as her own—thereby constructing a truly seamless act of plagiarism.

Brooks Winchell is an instructor of writing, research, and literature at Suffolk University, Merrimack College, and Cambridge College in Massachusetts.

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