TSS: Plagiarism

sunsalon1Happy Sunday everyone! I hope you all had a great week. I actually managed to get one book post in this week, for The Postmistress, so now I’ve only got two more to write this week and then I’ll be back on track. Work is still super busy, but I feel like I have a better pace and more focus. The biggest challenge this week will be getting back to the gym, something I haven’t been super regular about since, oh, September? I am lucky to get three days in lately…hopefully going at a scheduled time will help.

I’ve been thinking about writing about plagiarism for a while. A few years ago at the start of my extended blogging break, several bloggers were locked in a heated argument over whether one blogger had plagiarized the review of another blogger. I’m not trying to be mysterious by not naming names–I wasn’t involved in any way, the argument didn’t involve bloggers I read regularly. I wonder, do you look for other reviews of books you have read and reviewed on your blog, to see if anyone’s “stolen” your content? I admit, I do not. But honestly, that’s not the sort of plagiarism I had in mind, anyway.

When I decided to start the blog again, I took a look at my dashboard and noticed that two posts of mine in particular got a lot of hits. Both were about short stories; one was about “Tandolfo the Great” by Richard Bausch, and the other was about “The Harvest” by Amy Hempel. In fact, I would sometimes get up to 20 hits a day on the Amy Hempel post. As a former college instructor, I started to wonder about this. I don’t think either of these authors enjoy widespread popularity, except among fans of the short story and aspiring writers…and college instructors, especially those teaching creative writing or Twentieth century American fiction.

The fact the Hempel post got so many hits bothered me so much that I took it down, and I’ve considered taking down the Bausch post as well because it still is one of my top posts. I certainly can’t prove that anyone has plagiarized what I’ve said in either post–nor do I believe anything I’ve said might be worth plagiarizing. But I cannot help but worry, and this whole thing just made me think of blogging on a whole new level. Maybe some of you have already considered this, but given that I write mostly about contemporary fiction that’s not taught in schools, I hadn’t ever given it much thought.

The other thing that made me think about this was a Tweet I saw a few weeks back (From Iris, perhaps? I apologize for not remembering exactly who it was.) about a commenter who had read a review of a book, but then wanted to know, could the blogger explain the book’s theme? This set off all sorts of red flags for me. Here’s what I pictured: student in front of the computer, trying desperately to write a paper that’s due now about a book that he or she hasn’t even bothered to crack the spine on. It made me wonder, are blogs the new CliffsNotes?

A lot of the bloggers I follow read classic literature, and many of them write thoughtful, insightful reviews of the books they read. And I wonder, do any of them (of you, actually) worry that their posts are being fashioned into papers for English (or American) Literature 101? Of course, if it’s happening, I suppose there’s nothing anyone can do. But it still gives me pause.

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15 comments

  1. Yes, that was me. The weird thing was, it was on a post about Patrick Ness’ The Ask and the Answer. I hadn’t expected that book to be discussed in class as required reading. Not because it’s not a good quality novel (because, it definitely is!) but mostly because it’s not a classic, plus, it’s the second installment in a series. Even weirder, I think my post explored the theme of the book, so why even bother leaving a comment asking for it?

    I have never worried about it, really, my blogpost being plagiarised by students. But then, your post makes me wonder. Many of my blog searches include questions that are the kind of questions students would be asked, questions about theme, the portrayal of woman, etc. I would not mind students googling these questions and then writing their own observations inspired by blogs. I would be bothered if someone would turn in paragraphs of my blog post and get honoured for making smart observations (though I doubt that would happen based on my posts, but you know..). I think what keeps me from worrying too much is that I hope teachers are smart enough to google sentences if they are suspicious.

  2. I’ve often noticed search term in my stats that are obviously test questions or paper topics students are working on. Sometimes the whole question will be a search string! And Jenny once got an e-mail from a student asking her to help her write her paper for pay! She replied with a lengthy e-mail explaining the kind of help she would be willing to provide—only with the teacher’s permission and with proper citations—and a little lecture about buying papers off the internet. As you might imagine, she never heard back.

    If a post of mine gets students thinking in a fruitful direction, I don’t mind. And if they’re ripping off my posts wholesale, they’re probably not turning in work that’s exactly what the teacher is looking for or that sound like something the student would write.

  3. These is a very thoughtful post. I am both a college instructor and a blogger. I also blog about the books that I am teaching. I don’t think that most blog posts are geared towards the type of academic writing that instructors are looking for. I know that what I right is more “review” writing than literary analysis, and I also don’t provide enough plot detail for my writing to be useful even on that level. All that said, it has crossed my mind that any writing about texts on the internet could become someone’s study guide, but hopefully most students will use it responsibly, just like all the other information that is available on the web.

  4. This is a really interesting post and raises issues that I hadn’t considered before. I don’t think there is much we can really do about it, but I wonder if the plagiarism software many colleges use would catch it? It’s been a while since I worked in the tertiary edcuation setting so I forget exactly how that stuff works. I know my old uni used Turnitin…

  5. Right…I know TurnitIn catched a lot of this stuff, regardless of whether it’s taken from blogs or educational websites, the software can determine whether or not your information has been taken from somewhere else. It’s pretty accurate. Our district middle school and high schools use it.

    AS for searches, I have received a LOT of hits of my Maupassant post. I hope these kids are using my post as they would any other source…

  6. Iris, thanks for confirming that! I remember laughing out loud when I saw your tweet. I never thought of anyone plagiarizing (or even visiting the site for “scholastic” purposes) either until I realized those couple of posts were getting so many hits, and I started to wonder. I’ve seen some of those “question” searches also–I realized later I forgot to mention I get those for another book, The Siege of Krishnapur. I think teachers are smart enough usually to Google stuff–what worries me is whether they have the time, overworked and underpaid as they are!

    Teresa, that is hilarious (and sad). I cannot (or I would like not to) believe someone would have the gall to do such a thing as request that! I agree with you about getting someone thinking in a fruitful direction, because I think that’s what we’re all trying to do in general. And you are also right about teachers recognizing papers that aren’t in a student’s voice–I could almost always tell. I think it’s lucky for teachers sometimes that students generally don’t recognize they have a voice.

    Laura, that’s a good point. I do think a lot of what students might be looking for are themes and plot reconstructions (hence the CliffsNotes comment). I don’t tend to write anything very useful that way, either, although on the short story posts I was doing more of a “close reading” than I usually do. A lot of bloggers do write very detailed plot summaries, though…

    Kath, maybe software does catch it. I hate to date myself, but when I was teaching in the 90s we had no such software–I wish we had in some cases, but then again what Teresa said about the student’s “voice” is the most telling thing. I caught several students that way…it was as simple as keeping them after class and saying “You didn’t write this, did you?” They almost always confessed!

    Jennifer, we can only hope they use our blogs for good and not evil 🙂

  7. Wow, I’ve never even considered this, and I’m horrified to think that I’ve helped kids cheat in some way. Actually, one of my posts on this children’s book “Bifocal” gets a RIDICULOUS number of hits considering that I don’t know anyone else who’s read it, but it could well be on some school curricula and be getting hits from that (it also gets a lot of random comments months or years after I posted it). Thanks for the food for thought!

  8. Aarti, in your case I wonder if you’re getting hits from teachers and parents who just want to know more about the book? I can see where blogs are probably especially handy for parents, especially when the reviewer is thoughtful like yourself.

  9. I do think there are a lot of people out there trying to get help with their homework. One of my most popular posts is a short story by Maupassant, which I’m sure is on several school reading lists. Luckily (?!) no one is going to get any help from my ranting about how annoying it is, but I can see that others who’ve written more detailed posts about themes could prove very useful. I’m sure that the schools are aware of this though and will get suspicious if lots of people come back with similar things based on the only blog post out there. I think that is something for the students/teachers to worry about and it shouldn’t stop bloggers from writing thoughtful posts.

  10. Jackie, I agree that bloggers shouldn’t change what they write. I just wonder how much of a trend it actually is. And, as Teresa pointed out, teachers can generally spot when students stop sounding like themselves–or stop making their usual mistakes. 🙂

  11. I don’t review a lot of classics, but I have noticed a lot of hits on my brief comments on contemporary books that some schools and colleges have on their reading lists. And my eadership does include the college age demographic, but I assume and hope that most of these readers just like my comments on various books.

  12. That’s a really interesting topic and a great post, I admit I never thought about it. Mainly because I don’t believe anyone would find anything useful in terms of literary analysis in my posts.I also remember cases where there were heated debates, even assaults, concerning stealing reviews. But for essays?

    I’m an English student myself, and honest to God, it would never occur to me to use my fellow bloggers’ observations as my own. Professors are neither blind nor stupid when it comes to plagiarism (as my professor points out in every class, “Plagiarism is a deadly sin”). Someone in the comments above pointed ti out, it’s great if someone feels inspired by something they read online, but plagiarism is a big NO! …

  13. Wow! I’ve never thought about book reviews as essays before. Very interesting! I have felt uneasy about posting my own writing (i.e., poetry) on my blog in fear that it would be plagiarized, but book reviews–interesting topic!

  14. Sarah, I would be nervous about posting anything creative/original as well! I’m not sure my thoughts about books are all that original, but I would probably not post any fiction.

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