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June 5, 2004

Not the case for the defense
Posted by Teresa at 06:07 PM *

I was a bit surprised to discover that both Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber and P. Z. Myers in Pharyngula (and, in a me-too wave, Musical Perceptions, Nicomachus, and Rhosgobel) thought I was defending the plagiarizing habits of Michael Gunn, the student who’s suing the University of Kent.

They will not get full marks for that reading. I was saying that if an undergrad English major who’s a casual and habitual plagiarist hasn’t been nailed on it in three years of college, he might be pardoned for feeling indignant if the university suddenly decides to take a hard line a few days before he’s supposed to graduate. Gunn is still in the wrong. But if his practices were as as he describes—that is, if he’s been a casual and habitual plagiarist—he should have been caught long ago, and it shouldn’t have taken a computer program to catch him.

Here’s a longer version of what he said:
“I hold my hands up. I did plagiarise,” he told The Times Higher Education Supplement. “But I always used the internet, cutting and pasting stuff and matching it with my own points. It’s a technique I’ve used since I started the course and I never dreamt it was a problem. I can see there is evidence that I have gone against the rules, but they’ve taken all my money for three years and pulled me up the day before I finished. If they had pulled me up with my first essay at the beginning, and warned me of the problems, it would be fair enough. But all my essays were handed back with good marks and no one spotted it.”

Just to get this out of the way: I have no tolerance for plagiarism. I was helping my mother and the rest of her English department identify cases of it clear back in high school. I also don’t think Mr. Gunn’s plagiarism was inconsequential. He was stringing together cut-and-pasted material, which is wrong, albeit not in the same class as purchasing whole papers from one of the many websites that sell them. He must have known it was to some extent improper, but I can imagine him being honestly unclear on the exact degree of impropriety involved.

Doubtless some of Kieran Healy’s commenters will still think I’m defending Gunn’s plagiarism per se. They will definitely not get full marks for their readings.

What I want to know is, who’s been grading the papers at Kent University? Gunn’s papers will have been a patchwork of different writers, approaches, and voices. As I said in my earlier post, monitoring their use of the semicolon is often enough to catch student plagiarists. In Gunn’s case, he wouldn’t have had variable style and usage from paper to paper; he’d have had it within the papers themselves. That bothers me. Shouldn’t English instructors notice that? How could they not notice it? Yet they didn’t.

It also bothers me that none of his instructors recognized any of the material he was cannibalizing. There’s a lot of impersonal, undistinguished secondary literature on the web, but not all of it can be so described. Sooner or later, a student who’s not an expert in the field must unwittingly swipe material from some well-known or distinctive piece of litcrit. However, nobody spotted Mr. Gunn doing that. Also, some areas of English studies are quite specialized, with relatively small bodies of secondary literature, and relatively small numbers of scholars familiar with it. Lifting material from them is a variety of Russian roulette: you’re safe unless your paper crosses paths with one of those scholars, at which point they’ll have you dead to rights. But that didn’t happen either.

I repeat: Who’s been grading the papers at Kent University? Do they in fact have a faculty that can neither spot multiple changes of author within a single paper, nor recognize that an undergraduate is lifting paragraphs right and left from published literary criticism?

Dealing with plagiarism in an educational way, rather than this random-shootings punitive way, takes work. The University of Kent’s previous answer to the problem, which seems to have consisted of announcing in its student handbooks that plagiarism is a no-no, is simply not enough. You have to pay attention. You have to follow up on suspicions. Disciplinary action ought to happen at a point well short of graduation week.

Anyone who still thinks that what I’m saying constitutes a defense of Michael Gunn’s plagiarism are encouraged to re-read the last paragraph of my previous post on the subject. That’s still what I think Kent University should do: Reinstate Michael Gunn, give him three years’ free tuition, and let him re-do every scrap of that coursework he says he cheated on. And if you think that adds up to a defense of Michael Gunn or plagiarism, feel free to write me a note explaining how you got through school.

Comments on Not the case for the defense:
#1 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 07:53 PM:

Subtle legal problem. Rights not enforced are arguably waived. Let someone steal your intellectual property, without legal action, opens the door to others assuming that you waive you right to defend your IP. That's part of why Disney and Microsoft go after seemingly harmless folks (such as those who have Disney characters painted on the walls of a nursery school) or someoneone who has a URL or company name too close to the words "Micro Soft."

The college catalog is a contractual offer. Once a student registers, pays, takes classes, that student has agreed to contract terms. The school must enforce those terms, or get caught in the Michael Gunn-barrel. Disclaimer: IANAL.

#2 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 09:04 PM:

JVP, I'm not sure that's applicable.

#3 ::: karen ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 09:14 PM:

Your solution is a "defense" (only) in the sense that if he took the extra three years, his record would be clean and his life might be quite good. You're not tattooing a "P" on his forehead, nor condemning him to menial labor forever. You allow for forgiveness. Some people don't look beyond punishment, would never hire someone who had been in prison for example. I doubt the Crooked Timber folk see you as either soft or postmodern enough not to care about plagiarism, I suspect the more draconian suggestions (in the comments) are not as well thought out. I understood the original Healy post as saying he had expected you (known for, shall we say, firmness with people who abuse your hospitality online) to be more furious at the student, not that he thought you had endorsed Gunn's claim. Hope that doesn't make you take too many points off for comprehension...

#4 ::: Rob ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 09:31 PM:

I actually like the idea of sending him back to take all his classes again. Except he would be taking a seat (and resources) which could better be used by someone else.

Maybe he should have gotten caught earlier. In a perfect world he would have. But I have always been annoyed by those who blame the fact they have finally got into serious trouble on some authority not catching and stopping them earlier. Where is personal responsibility in this equation? Equally odious is those that see getting away with something as a pseudo endorsement of their behavior. Above all I think that this young man does not show the kind of critical thinking skills that should earn one a degree

#5 ::: PZ Myers ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 09:32 PM:

Where you lose me is in that last paragraph: give him 3 years free tuition? Why? Getting an education is a privilege and a pleasure, and you're saying he should be rewarded with a gift of 3 years of it for cheating.

#6 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 10:04 PM:
The college catalog is a contractual offer. Once a student registers, pays, takes classes, that student has agreed to contract terms. The school must enforce those terms, or get caught in the Michael Gunn-barrel. Disclaimer: IANAL.

IANAL either, but my understanding of the IP statutes is that the whole "silence gives consent" angle is explicitly stated in them - it's not a general principle, and even if it were it wouldn't necessarily apply to contract law. (I don't know that contract law applies here, either - non-lawyers are fond of assuming that because X is like Y, law that applies to Y also applies to X, but that's a bad assumption to make.)

Where you lose me is in that last paragraph: give him 3 years free tuition? Why? Getting an education is a privilege and a pleasure, and you're saying he should be rewarded with a gift of 3 years of it for cheating.

It's the same three years he (or someone)already paid for. It's a Mulligan. I think it's got adequate punishment aspects.

#7 ::: Rachel Reiss ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 10:05 PM:

I realize that you are arguing that the university bears some responsibility--not all, but some.

Leaving aside the question of whether I agree with you on that point--I'll have to think about it some more, although my emotional impulse is more along the lines of "off with his head!", which reason suggests is a bit extreme--the problem with your solution is that the university will simply turn around and pass the cost of the three free years on to its other students.

Why should (one hopes) honest students have to bankroll someone who already threw away three years of educational opportunity? They surely, going by the facts presented, bear no responsibility for either this one student's dishonesty nor the university's alleged negligence.

#8 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 10:14 PM:

Actually, my first thought on hearing about this case was very similar to what Vos Post said--that Gunn was presenting a version of the laches defense. "I've been blatantly plagiarizing for three years with no complaints; it's unfair to haul me up on charges only as I cross the finish line."

Really, though, the only way that defense would work in US civil court (and I have no idea if it would at all in British court) is if Gunn can demonstrate that some of his instructors were aware of his misdeeds. Not should have been aware, but were. Then laches might apply.

#9 ::: Ilona ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 10:31 PM:

"Gunn is still in the wrong. But if his practices were as as he describes—that is, if he’s been a casual and habitual plagiarist—he should have been caught long ago, and it shouldn’t have taken a computer program to catch him."

It's ridiculously easy to catch a plagiarist. At one point I was asked to help a few soldiers from my husband's unit with some college papers. A lot of the papers were near incoherent, and since most of those guys barely had time to sketch a rough draft, I taught them all the same 3-paragraph model most people learn or should learn in college. You know, intro ending in a thesis, 3 body paragraphs supporting the thesis, and a conclusion. No big. I'd take the rough draft, dig for a thesis, underline it, show how to restructure the body, and how write a conclusion.

Anyhow, most of the papers were for social studies, a couple for an English course, and then somebody got one for a History course. A few days later this fellow showed up at our door, paper in hand, and holding a note, which read "Dear Mrs. Gordon. So nice to see you branching out. If you get a minute, stop by my office so we can chat. Oh, and in this particular case you might want to expand on your explanation of an essay organization."

I look at the paper and this knucklehead instead of listening to my explanation went and inserted the tags I made above the lines into the text. As in "Machiavelli this is the thesis was a dangerous guy."

I did stop by the office. Apparently the professors got together and figured out why there was a sudden increase in 3-part papers all equipped with a conclusion that opened with "To reiterate..."

Funny thing is, I gave different examples of the opening and closing tags, but for some reason "to reiterate" was the one that stuck.

It took only 6 papers before the professors zeroed in on me. It wasn't plagiarism and they had no problem with the tutoring, except obviously in the last case. But the fact remains - only 6 papers! How in the world did the people in Kent missed the plagiarism is beyond me. He should get those 3 years of education back - he obviously had incompetent instructors.

#10 ::: zhaf ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 10:53 PM:

Speaking as an overworked T.A. at a state university, I can definitely say that it is hard to catch cheaters sometimes. When you have your own papers to write, several full length novels to read, weeks of research to do in the library, and the particular idiosyncratic demands of professors who are less than comfortable with the internet, the occasional plagiarized paper will slip through. You can't possibly check every paper rigourously enough for plagiarism and return them in time for the honest students to have useful criticism for the next writing assignment.

If I could devote concentrated attention to every three page paper for a full 30 minutes, I would catch a majority of the cheaters. Even as it stands, I caught 3 plagiarized papers last week, and now I am behind on my own work. It is easy to point fingers at the graders and say they need to be more on the ball, but as a grader, I have to say this is akin to blaming someone for having their car stolen. Sure, there are some things you can do: always lock the car, buy some kind of anti-theft devices, but the car thief is a crook who knows it is wrong to steal. The true blame lies with them. Similarly, every college student knows it is wrong to cheat. It's about accountability and personal responsibility. This student is trying to shift the blame to the school because of his actions, and he shouldn't get away with it. If the administrators and the instructors allowed him to get away with it, they would be cheating the honest students.

#11 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 10:57 PM:

I should have read further. Dan, what you've said is, I believe, a common minor misunderstanding of civil law and IP law. Note that I am not a lawyer, but I've been in detailed discussions of these principles with lawyers and here's what I think is the case. I, of course, welcome correction.

In US law, trademarks will indeed cease to exist if they are not actively enforced. For most other rights, including intellectual property rights, this is not true.

So if I have a trademark on Wombat Garden (brand) Shovels, and someone else markets a "Garden Wombat" brand shovel, I have to act to protect my trademark in an expeditious manner as soon as I learn about it. If I don't, I run the risk that a court will decide that "wombat" is a generic descriptor of shovels, and I will never again be able to try to stop someone from selling Wombat brand shovels.

But this extreme is true only because trademark rights are a very weird part of law, with unique rules.

This principle of diminished rights is not nearly as broad for other forms of intellectual property. Let's say I write and publish a book (say, A Child's Garden of Wombats). A couple of years later, I discover that some person has published an unauthorized revision of it (A Child's Garden of Wombats: The New, Improved Version but I don't don't do anything about it. A year later, someone publishes The Compleat Wombat: A Collection of Writings about Superior Marsupials, which includes the entire text of my book. My right to defend my copyright in the second case hasn't gone away completely because I failed to defend it in the first case.

However, the civil principle of laches might come into play in my suit against the author of The Compleat Wombat. In general, laches is a civil principle that says that if a plaintiff allows an offense to continue, the plantiff's ability to enforce a judgement can be diminished or eliminated. It's vaguely similar to a statute of limitations. The publisher of The Compleat Wombat might try a laches defense, citing the example of The New, Improved Wombat as evidence that I did not believe that I held enforcable copyright in the original work. But it would be a very hard defense to assert in such a case.

But let's say that five more years pass. The publisher of The New, Improved Wombat decides to reprint it. I decide enough is enough and sue him. In such a situation, that publisher probably has a pretty good laches defense. The fact that I knew about the first printing but didn't act on it would have prejudiced him into believing he was doing nothing wrong; that's the heart of laches.

Note that this is not the same issue as a statute of limitations. I'm not sure what the limitations on a copyright infringement suit are, but in the second case, I'm suing as soon as I find out about the reprint. My suit might still get thwarted because of my actions in response to the first printing (i. e., quiet acquiescence).

As I said, it looks like Gunn was trying to set up something like a laches argument against his university--"You let me get away with it for three years; you can't stop me now." I'm not particularly impressed, for a variety of reasons, but it's not inherently absurd.

#12 ::: A. Nony Mous ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2004, 11:14 PM:

It's ridiculously easy to catch a bad plagiarist. The ones who use Google, for instance, and incorporate enough of the text verbatim that one can locate the specific web sites used.

It's ridiculously easy to catch the naive writer who plagiarizes, because there are startling gaps in style and tone.

It's ridiculously easy when you recognize the source. You know the person plagiarized because you've read the original. This happens often enough in the upper class courses for English majors in most schools that there are two or three faculty that everyone consults when the paper is just a bit too good for the writer in question. The local expert is typically someone who's been teaching the course for years, is a bibliophile, and knows the field. Quite often, the expert can identify the passage, and you've got a case.

But unless the student admits plagiarizing, you pretty much have to produce a source. There's just too much plagiarism on campus for the authorities to deal with--hundreds of cases, every semester, in addition to the cheating and other criminal infractions. And then the parents often enter the fray waving litigious threats.

Think about it this way. Only the bad plagiarists are caught. The good ones continue merrily plagiarizing their way through university, on to an advanced degree, and then become tenured faculty, plagiarizing their graduate students' research.

Really. We've got at least three like that at where I teach. One of them is a repeat offender, disciplined by faculty peers, and, incidentally, the winner of several departmental honors.

#13 ::: sennoma ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 12:14 AM:

feel free to write me a note explaining how you got through school.

Without cheating, that's how. I never imagined you were defending him, but I still don't see where a free three years' tuition is a punishment rather than a reward. Why should he be allowed to take up resources someone else could make use of? It seems that the university was lax, maybe even negligent, but I don't see why he should benefit from that. The idea that he is somehow being hard done by seems absurd to me; he cheated, he got caught, now he faces the consequences. The timing makes no difference, unless it (the timing) was somehow deliberate, someone's idea of teaching him a lesson.

How about meeting half-way: let him re-enrol and do the degree over, at his own expense and under the intense scrutiny that his history will naturally engender. That avoids handing him anything for free while at the same time not crushing him like a bug.

#14 ::: Jackmormon ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 01:43 AM:

Anonymous, I agree completely with the substance of what you write--and by the way I'm in zhof's position and sympathize, oh yes, and unionize--but I do want to point out that your suggestion that a teacher could go consult the local bibliophile for help seems rather optimistic to me. I'm a grad student and TA at an Ivy League University. Even my students don't seem to have time for me, let alone aged faculty members.

And typing every slightly suspicious phrase into Google (especially from a dial-up shared with two roommates) is not the best use of an instructor's time. If I have doubts about an essay, I'll type in three or four phrases; if the student passes the sample size, I figure it's time to move on. Hanging onto the paper and submitting portions of it to an online "expose all plagiarists now" forum seems less important in the long run than making sure I don't spend too more than the official 15 hours/week on my teaching duties.

As for recognizing the original, the only time I've heard a fellow grad student claim to do so was when it was his own writing that the student plagiarized. Even then he had to think about it for a couple of hours. This semester I had Poe on my syllabus. There must be over ten thousand crackpot Poe sites out there; just the scholarly stuff is enough to make your head spin.

My understanding about the English universities is that the marking is often also done by post MA-level students. It's possible that English university administrators would tend to believe the marker rather than the student, unlike their American counterparts, but I imagine that they too would want to see a ream of supporting material, have forms filed in triplicate, and require multiple letters to be written.

Besides the time proving such suspicions can take, and the hostility with which such accusations are usually met on an administrative level, I think there's also the factor of sympathy. Not that instructors sympathize with plagiarists--no, when I've caught students I tended to surprise myself with how angry I got--but rather we don't want to believe nasty things about our students.

As for the re-enrolling idea, if the student really wants to re-do his education, he should re-apply (probably to a different institution) and pay for it himself. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this lawsuit was his way of trying to get out of the new increased university fees in England.

#15 ::: Tiellan ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 01:52 AM:

I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the professors didn't even read any of his papers themselves. They were probably read and graded by TAs who wouldn't recognize a plagarised paper if it jumped off the table and screamed "Cheater cheater!" at them. The problem is that TAs aren't invested in the education of the students. Some of the professors aren't either. They're likely invested in their tenure, and little else.

I agree that Gunn has something of a point. He should have been caught well before now. There's a poetic justice to TNH's suggestion too, but the people who didn't catch Gunn's plagarism the first three years would be the same people reading (or not reading) his work the second time around - so what would be the point?

The problem, as I see it, is where everybody's values are. The university, and the professors who allowed him to pass these three years need to take a serious look at how he was able to cheat them for so long. The university probably only cares about whether or not Mr. Gunn pays his tuition on time. The teachers probably only care about whether or not the university pays their salaray. If anybody really cared about whether or not Mr. Gunn, or any other student, was getting any value out of his education, he would have been caught much earlier. I know that those are overgeneralizations, and that there are people out there who really care about their students' education. Unfortunately, I've become jaded lately and don't believe that institutions on the whole care about anything beyond their bottom line. The work that would be necessary to realign everybody's values with what they claim their mission to be would affect their bottom line. I don't believe they're willing to do it. And they're certainly would not be able to do it in time to re-instate Mr. Gunn.

In my mind, real justice demands that he loses everything. He cheated himself out of three years of an eduction, he deserves to lose it all. Re-instating him feels too much like rewarding him for being sleazy and weasely enough to blame the university for his deliberate attempts to cheat the system.

#16 ::: Tiellan ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 01:58 AM:

Cheated himself out of three years of an education that is. Yes, I can spell tonight ...

#17 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 02:40 AM:

In _Dark Ages Ahead_, Jane Jacobs says (quite plausibly) that culture can only be taught by people.

If so, Kent University is slacking off by saying that they did their job by having an anti-plagiarism policy in their handbook, especially by comparison with the efforts made by other universities.

#18 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 04:56 AM:

"Really, though, the only way that defense would work in US civil court (and I have no idea if it would at all in British court) is if Gunn can demonstrate that some of his instructors were aware of his misdeeds. Not should have been aware, but were. "
There comes a point where should have been aware becomes an obligation for someone to present explicit arguments why they were unaware, something on the order of "I get blind stinking drunk before grading papers, wouldn't you?"

#19 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 05:04 AM:

"He should get those 3 years of education back - he obviously had incompetent instructors."

so is six years with incompetent instructors the equivalent of three years with competent ones?

#20 ::: Dora ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 05:55 AM:

...thought I was defending the plagiarizing habits of Michael Gunn

I can see where they're coming from. You say that he's in the wrong but you focus on his teachers' responsibility, which sounds like a way to shift the bulk of the blame from him. No, which is a way to shift the bulk of the blame from him.

Gunn is a lazy idiot who's pretending to be even dumber than he is in order to get away. I don't think his defense is in any way believable, but even if it were honest, the faculty's incompetence is irrelevant to the case. You don't get away with stealing just because a person didn't lock their door. And when the person suddenly does decide to lock their door, you don't get to complain about it.

#21 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 06:10 AM:

Okay, how about this? Kick Gunn out on his rear, and at the same time select some random freshman to receive three years' free tuition.

Does that serve justice all the way around?

#22 ::: Tim Cooper ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 07:14 AM:

The college catalog is a contractual offer. Once a student registers, pays, takes classes, that student has agreed to contract terms.

I know little about British law, but I know this: The college really, really, really does not want to use this argument. If the college catalog were to constitute a contract, the college would be in a world of trouble, as every college I've ever known violates such things regularly. (If such an argument were valid, I would happily and lucratively sue my former institution for breach.)

Better that they let Gunn stick around than open up that can of worms.

#23 ::: David ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 07:58 AM:

Here in Britain, there's no such thing as a massive, comprehensive university catalogue. Universities will produce prospectuses giving an overview of departments and degree courses, and individual departments will hand out sheets with descriptions of courses and modules (and, these days, put them up on the Web).

Also, there is no tenure in British universities. Teaching assistants are not used to anything like the same extent as in the US. Most lecturers and professors, even famous ones, have to juggle lectures, tutorials, office hours, marking essays and an increasing amount of bureaucratic form-filling, not to mention coming up with enough earth-shattering original research to keep the funding coming.

Tuition fees are small compared to the US. Until a few years ago, the government paid all tuition costs for UK-resident undergraduates (the student had to pay for accomodation). Now undergraduates have to pay £1,000 per year towards tuition, which leaves most of the costs paid by the government. So if Gunn failed to pay his fees on time, the university would only stand to lose £1,000 plus room rent.

(It's widely thought that the government plans to allow leading universities such as Oxford and Cambridge to charge unlimited fees, so that they could match the levels of funding and resources enjoyed by US universities.)

#24 ::: Nick Kiddle ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 08:00 AM:

I can see where they're coming from. You say that he's in the wrong but you focus on his teachers' responsibility, which sounds like a way to shift the bulk of the blame from him. No, which is a way to shift the bulk of the blame from him.

I thought the focus on what the university could have done was just down to the fact that it's the interesting part.

Plagiarism is bad; I don't think anyone's likely to miss that, especially here. But the university was also wrong in letting him get away with it for so long: that's an issue that bears further discussion.

#25 ::: Ilona Gordon ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 08:09 AM:

"so is six years with incompetent instructors the equivalent of three years with competent ones?"

Zing! Good point :)

But still, getting away with plagiarizing for three years points to negligence on the college's part. If I had gone to school with this idiot and took the same courses, I would be livid. The fact that they let him slide for so long cheapens the perceived value of the education the rest of the students received. I'm sure that most students worked hard for their diploma. The next time they pull it out to apply for a job or post-graduate education, Gunn's slippery shadow will pop up. Can you imagine, being asked every time if you were Gunn's classmate and if you, too, plagiarized your papers? That would automatically put a person on the defensive at a job interview.


#26 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 08:51 AM:

I teach physics, so I don't grade a great deal of written work. I will say, though, that I think people are badly overstating the ease with which plagiarists can be caught. Or, rather, they're generalizing from the example of very stupid plagiarists (who are, in fact, easily detected) and assuming that Mr. Gunn must've been equally dumb and easy to find out. Without knowing what he wrote and how, I don't think you can really say anything about whether he should've been caught or not.

People who plagiarize in an incredibly stupid manner are easy to catch, and that accounts for the bulk of the plagiarism cases that we're aware of. It's not hard to imagine a way to do a better job than those clowns, though-- it might not actually be less work than just doing the assignment, but with a little work to smooth the transitions, the sort of thing he describes doing could be made very difficult to catch. Particularly if the assignments are in large classes, with overworked graders. (I don't know what faculty loading is like in the UK, but my humanities colleagues typically teach two different courses at the same time, with somewhere between 10 and 30 students in each. That's a lot of papers to grade...)

I know essentially nothing about Kent-- I'm not even sure what part of the YooKay it's in-- and I know even less about what Mr. Gunn "wrote" for his various classes, so there's no way I feel qualified to make any definitive statement about what they should or should not have been able to do with his work. Maybe he was as dumb about it as his comments make him sound, but remember, his unique choice of defense gives him an interest in making himself sound stupid. It might be, though, that he's a better-than-average plagiarist, whose work was good enough to sneak by.

Again, let me cite the University of Virginia case, in which something on the order of a hundred honor code proceedings were brought after a mechanical comparison was run on two years' worth of term papers. This involved students copying from other students, not from the Internet, but some pairwise identical papers apparently slipped by the human graders. The article I linked states that those found guilty constitute two percent of the students in the course-- that's at least 1,000 students. When you're dealing with that many student papers, it's hard to keep track.

Or look at the Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose cases. They were tagged for numerous unattributed citations in their books, which had slipped by not only their editors, but also thousands of readers before somebody noticed it. Granted, they're professional authors, and thus a higher grade of plagiarism is to be expected, but picking this stuff up is not always a trivial matter.

#27 ::: Dora ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 09:26 AM:

Plagiarism is bad; I don't think anyone's likely to miss that, especially here. But the university was also wrong in letting him get away with it for so long: that's an issue that bears further discussion.

Sure. However, the university's negligence of its job as an educational institute is a separate issue from what they need to do with Gunn. The boy should be kicked out, full stop. He wasn't there to get an education anyway; for him it was a matter of exchanging money for diploma, otherwise he wouldn't have cheated.

#28 ::: Bill Blum ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 09:59 AM:

My view on the whole situation?

He sounds perfectly suited for post-college employment in a whinery.

Giving him another chance would be expected at most schools... but his stated intent to litigate his way out of this mess probably means people at Kent are going to be less than receptive to anything involving this young man after the situation dies down.


#29 ::: Elric ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 10:29 AM:

My take on this story is that about the only place where Gunn can really claim wrong is if he can show that his plagiarism was recognized early, and the that university decided to keep him there, paying tuition, with the intent of expelling him just before graduation.

#30 ::: Simon Bradshaw ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 10:53 AM:

With respect, I think that there is a major misconception about what Mr Gunn has paid for.

He claims to have debts of £11,000, which sounds about right for three years of standard UK student loans for support (i.e. living expenses, not tuition). Depending on his family circumstances, he may have paid up to £1,125 per year as a personal contribution to tuition expenses. The balance of tuition fees would have been paid by the Government - that is, UK taxpayers like me. We can get an idea how much this is by looking at Kent's fees for non-EU students, who are charged the full cost of tuition: currently £7,895 per annum. In other words, Mr Gunn has been supported by the taxpayer to the tune of £6,770 per annum for three years; say £20,000 or so. He will have actually paid perhaps £3,375 in tuition himself, and quite possibly a lot less.

So, re-instating him would involve asking the UK taxpayer to stump up another £20,000, as well as suggesting that he take on a further £11,000 or so in living-expenses loans (which, AFAIK, he would be very unlikely to get). I for one think that there are more deserving cases to receive my tax pounds.

#31 ::: Simon Bradshaw ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 11:18 AM:

As someone currently studying law in the UK, I have a few comments about the legal aspect of Mr Gunn's supposed case.

I say 'supposed' becase the reports I've seen suggest that he is considering suing the University of Kent. In other words, he has yet to find a solicitor willing to take the case. I would be surprised if he gets public funding for such a claim, ang given what I think about his chances of success I doubt if any solicitor would offer a conditional fee agreement. He'll thus have to pay in full, as he goes along. And that will be a lot of money, as for a case like this his solicitor will probably have to instruct a barrister, so he will be paying for two lawyers. And if he loses (very likely), he will be hit with a costs bill for the University of Kent's legal representation.

Now, Mr Gunn says he intends to claim for negligence. To prove negligence in an English court you need to prove that:

(a) The defendent owed you a duty of care under the circumstances, and

(b) He or she failed in that duty of care, and

(c) You suffered as a result.

Clearly a university owes a duty of care to its students to ensure that they understand policy on academic work. However, for Mr Gunn to prove that the University of Kent failed in this (and the burden of proof is on him to do so) may be very hard. The existence of a readily-available plagiarism policy would probably suffice, and if he has ever signed acceptance of such a policy, well...

Now, I don't know what Kent's policy on submissions is. However, the last two colleges I've attended here in the UK have both required that every piece of coursework I submitted be accompanied by a form where I signed to certify that what I was submitting was my own work and that I understood the policy on plagiarism and the disciplinary consequences relating to it. If Kent did likewise, and they've retained this paperwork, Mr Gunn's case is almost certainly doomed.

Another, and more fundamental issue, is that there is an old principle of English law that "he who comes to equity must do so with clean hands". Equity is the branch of law dealing (very broadly) with remedy for unfair conduct. In other words, a court will not give equitable remedy for the consequences of your own dishonest actions. Depending on the interpretation the court applies, it may well decide that this means that Mr Gunn's claim is fatally tainted by his own admitted behaviour.

To be frank, I will be surprised if Mr Gunn gets as far as instructing a solicitor and submitting a claim. I will be very surprised if it gets to court, and I will be astonished if he wins.

#32 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 12:26 PM:

Subtle legal problem. Rights not enforced are arguably waived.

I *am* a lawyer. What you're referring to is the necessity, in certain areas of intellectual property, of enforcing your rights lest they be deemed to have been waived.

Clearly this is not an issue of Mr. Gunn violating the university's copyright, trademark or patent rights.

Contractually speaking, I'd be shocked to hear ov a university anywhere that doesn't, in its enrollment agreement that the student signs, have something along the lines of "by enrolling you agree to abide by all of the university's policies," and that would include plagarism. "Meaningless boilerplate" is not an argument that gets you far in a US court and probably not much farther in the UK. Unless Mr. Gunn is claiming the university hid their plagiarism policy so he wouldn't know about it, or never told anyone, or in fact didn't have one and never mentioned it, he's likely SOL.

I'll reiterate that he said he is "planning to sue," not suing, and that the story about the university allowing the plagiarism is entirely his claim.

#33 ::: Scott Spiegelberg ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 12:39 PM:

As one of the bloggers accused of misreading Teresa's earlier post, I point to Dora's comment above. In the first post, Teresa stated that Gunn had a point, meaning that the university was somewhat at fault. This is a defense, whether or not Teresa means to characterize it that way.

I would also add another point, related to Chad's excellent comment. Professors, instructors, and TAs are not hired to be detectives or law enforcers. We are hired to impart our knowledge about specific disciplines and the general concept of learning to the students. Because we give grades that have a certain material value, we do our best to ensure fairness, but our first concern should always be in the content we deliver and the the way we deliver it. If we spend more time checking for plagiarism, we have to spend less time in other areas, such as giving comments to students, planning lessons, and doing our own research. Which is more important?

#34 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 12:55 PM:

Kevin, thanks for the explanation of laches. I found it interesting not only in itself but because it's the first Yiddish legal term I've encountered.

My original gut instinct that this does not apply to contracts was just reinforced by the explanation - I would tend to think that unless a contract explicitly states that it does, or establishes a relationship between parties that is subject to it according to statute, it wouldn't. Mythago (or anyone else knowledgable), am I way off base here?

#35 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 01:05 PM:

When I graded first year papers, most of the papers were dreadful all on their own, never mind worrying about plagarism. Spelling, grammar, factual errors - never mind the maundering prose which rendered physically would make the Colorado river a straight line.

Beyond that, there were 3 or 4 markers plus the professor, so identical papers split between two markers would never be caught.

#36 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 01:26 PM:

Scott Spiegelberg writes:
Professors, instructors, and TAs are not hired to be detectives or law enforcers. We are hired to impart our knowledge about specific disciplines and the general concept of learning to the students.

Agreed, up to a point. Most of the plagiarism I've seen has been by the English majors in large classes. do consider it part of my job to watch out for plagiarism. Some of it is honestly inadvertent, some of it is ignorance, and some of it deliberate cheating. I'm not going to spend hours looking for a source, but if I spot suspicious text, I'll type a few unusual phrases in Google. I won't spend more than ten minutes or so searching. I'll pass the paper to my fellow T.A.s (we frequently catch identical submissions this way) and I'll show it to the instructor of record, who has the ultimate responsibility for the course. At that point, if we don't have a source but are still suspicious about the paper, I'll talk to the student about what the paper says. Sometimes the student has genuinely written the paper. Often the student can't even explain the argument, or how it was developed, since it isn't his (or hers) to begin with. They usually admit to plagiarism then. Depending on what the instructor of record wants to do, if we don't have an admission of guilt, but we still doubt it's the student's work, we may take the student and the paper to the Dean. After that point, we don't really have anything to do with the process. It's up to the Dean.

Scott wrote:
Because we give grades that have a certain material value, we do our best to ensure fairness, but our first concern should always be in the content we deliver and the the way we deliver it. If we spend more time checking for plagiarism, we have to spend less time in other areas, such as giving comments to students, planning lessons, and doing our own research. Which is more important?

There I disagree. Part of my job is to teach potential future scholars about academic culture, and about academic writing, and that includes teaching them not to plagiarize, and how to cite. I would also argue that the kind of sensitivity to text and style and voice that we employ in identifying possible plagiarism is a basic skill for humanist scholars and part of what we should be learning to apply to any text, whether it's part of our research or not. There's also the original idea of the medieval university, a union of scholars, and I don't see plagiarists having a place in that union.

I'm not a policeman, but I'm not going to ignore it either.

#37 ::: Mris ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 01:44 PM:

The fact that they let him slide for so long cheapens the perceived value of the education the rest of the students received. I'm sure that most students worked hard for their diploma.

Are you, Ilona? Because, see, I'm not. For me, the average college/university diploma has already been cheapened enough that I don't feel this was a revelation about what was possible from college students. We've seen so very many people commenting that they've seen plagiarism a lot or that their friends who teach have seen it. I doubt that this one guy could injure diplomas further at this point.

Maybe this is too much of a young American's POV, too dissimilar from the middle-aged Brits who would actually be hiring Gunn's classmates. But we had grade inflation with Vietnam and for various reasons since then. Even the kids who didn't cheat often don't have to work their butts off. Many departments or faculty members don't ask it of their students, and that includes some at the schools that are reputed to be the best. I'm just having a hard time imagining that people really would be shocked by his cheating and would change their view of his university because of it.

That doesn't mean I think the university shouldn't have done better. It just means that I don't think anyone should be surprised that it didn't.

#38 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 03:21 PM:

Dan, laches generally means you should have enforced the contract but dragged your feet on doing so, to the other person's detriment. I'm assuming that as applied to Mr. Gunn, he's claiming that the university should have kicked him out right away, and by failing to do so they lost their right to expel him for plagiarism.

Somehow I don't think a court is going to buy that argument.

#39 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 04:45 PM:

Tersea, Dan Blum, Kevin:

You have helped me to understand this better. Kevin was particularly convincing to me. IANAL squared.

Tim Cooper: several universities and colleges where I worked have indeed made that argument. Yet it failed when I raised it at U.Mass./Amherst. I'd met all requirements for the Ph.D. (and more) except the Dissertation Defense, which I'd paid for. The department was obligated, by the catalog, to turn my ad hoc Thesis Commitee into a formal Thesis Commitee, to formally take my dissertation and torture me about it, then vote thumbs up or thumbs down.

They refused to formalize the existing committee and thus never had to evaluate the real thesis. Then they invoked a clause that said "if you've gone X months since passing the Doctoral Qualifying Exam without having a formal Thesis Committee, you're out of the department." Then "if you're not in any department, for at least Y months, you're out of the university."

I made the contract argument. They laughed. I went to an attorney. He collected $1,984 (an appropriate figure) of unpaid Teaching Assistantship salary. Now the department chairman (the one who was later voted out by a "no confidence" vote, who himself had replaced the repeat offender Plagiarist chairman) said "you not only made me look bad to my faculty, but you cost me money in a time of tight budget. So long as I live, you'll never get that Ph.D."

It has recently become easier in California to become certified as a paralegal. The easy way in is: (1) have a B.S. or B.A. in anything; (2) work at a lawfirm as a de facto paralegal for at least 3 years; (3) have an attorney there write a Declaration to that effect; (4) file; (5) take Z hours per year of continuing education in the law.

I think that they made it easier to then better regulate. There's been an epidemic of people claiming to be lawyers, legal assistants, paralegals, "runners", whatever. They take cash from clients (usually immigrants) to represent them in court, and usually split after some half-assed attempted filings or appearances. Major investigations and busts going on. It is, of course, a Felony in many states to practice Law without a license.

#40 ::: LNHammer ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 05:05 PM:

Never mind the legal hoopdedoodle, I wanna read A Child's Garden of Wombats.

---L.

#41 ::: Bill Blum ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 08:43 PM:

JVP:

I've never run into anyone who's been pleased with their experiences at UMass-Amherst.


In the unlikely event that I pursue a PhD, it'll probably be at the Air Force Institute of Technology-- I already work there, I'm familiar with the research they do, and their philosophy of getting you out the door in 3 years for the PhD is something I'm very interested in.

(It'll take me 2 years, part-time, to finish my masters degree at Wright State.)

#42 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 09:22 PM:

mythago: can you comment professionally on "adverse possession"? What I've heard makes it sound like a different sense than applicable here, but very analogous to Kevin's discussion of what happens if a copyright violation is allowed to continue.

Not that I'd be impressed with such a defense, any more than I'd be impressed with "I ran that stop sign every day for the last year and you're just now trying to fine me?" For one thing, I would \hope/ that this induhvidual had been told the rules about plagiarism in a less-impersonal setting years before -- I vaguely recall the subject coming up at least as far back as 7th grade.

#43 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 09:37 PM:

I've never run into anyone who's been pleased with their experiences at UMass-Amherst.

Now you have. Just undergrad, though.

#44 ::: Neil Gaiman ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 11:26 PM:

Kevin, in the US copyright statute of limitations is from three years after a reasonable person would have found out about it. (From the 7th circuit judgment in my own recent legal case, suing Todd McFarlane, you'll be happy to hear that a reasonable author is not expected to check the copyright notices on reprints to see if the publisher has tried to sneak in a copyright claim he's not entitled to, nor expected to check the copyright office to see if fraudulent copyright notices have been filed.)


In your example, I would have thought that the second publisher could well claim he was publishing the first book, which violated your copyright, you already knew about it and did nothing about it, and might well get away with it too.

#45 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2004, 11:56 PM:

Neil, I ought to know this, but is that really the rule? It's unexpectedly elegant.

#46 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 12:06 AM:

Wanna read A Child's Garden of Wombats. Wanna read it while listening to The Great Bear Cult's recording of "Waka Waka Stomp."

I feel deprived.

#47 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 01:48 AM:

Bill Blum writes:

In the unlikely event that I pursue a PhD, it'll probably be at the Air Force Institute of Technology-- I already work there, I'm familiar with the research they do, and their philosophy of getting you out the door in 3 years for the PhD is something I'm very interested in.

I see that this article, which has recently come to my attention, is based entirely upon a thesis from AFIT. Entertaining though it would be were nuclear-powered aircraft to make a comeback, I am a bit skeptical.

#48 ::: Bill Blum ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 06:54 AM:

Bill Higgins, Beam Jockey wrote:
I see that this article, which has recently come to my attention, is based entirely upon a thesis from AFIT. Entertaining though it would be were nuclear-powered aircraft to make a comeback, I am a bit skeptical.

This is by no means the strangest idea to come out of AFIT. Give me a few days to find some of the citations.

#49 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 07:07 AM:

CHip - "adverse possession" is a fairly tricky subject, even when applied in its own natural home: property law. It is a fairly specific, common-law-based concept intended to make sure that people make good use of property, rather than having it lie fallow. It also usually takes 20 or so years (it varies from state to state) to come into effect, and the smallest exercise of possession or control by the original owner is often enough to set the clock back for the person attempting an adverse claim.

My former mentor would probably light up at the concept of using adverse possession in a copyright setting. But he liked exploring concepts in such a pretzelated fasion . He and I once wrote an appellate brief trying to use civil trespass concepts in order to obviate a loophole defense in a criminal case. (Didn't work).

#50 ::: Pete Darby ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 08:54 AM:

Hey, couldn't see it in any of the other comments, but is anyone else here a graduate of UKC, apart from me?

Yup, BA Drama & Philosophy, UKC 1992, hons III.

(as a translation note, yes, I got a 3rd in Drama & philosophy. This qualifies me to talk loudly in restaurants, and proves I turned up to the exams, spelt my name write, and didn't plagiarize the little work I completed).

I don't know what changed in the 10 odd years between myself and this guy being in the humanities dept, but I do know that Do Not Plagiarize was one of only three rules that were drilled into every student.

(the others were don't eat the ducks and don't go on the roof. Yes, thankyou, I did look them up on alt.folkore.urban, and I know every other university in the world has those "rules").

The advice a friendly lecturer gave was "We know you're going to copy from secondary sources: for god's sake rewrite it, at least that demonstrates you've enough respect for us that you make a little effort, and it may actually help you understand what the essay should be about."

Should he have been caught before? Hell yes. Enough guys were caught early on when I was there to put The Fear into everyone else. Maybe standards have slipped.

But, give him another three years "education"? That I'll bet he's already borrowed form the government to buy the first time? Feck it, next time, let him use the Open University and put up his own cash.

Bringing the court case shows him to be an arrogant ass, and as lazy a plagiarist as the lecturers are readers... or perhaps not.

Knowing the internal mail system at UKC, I'd guess he's been sent little slips about his work getting zero for plagiarism, and he either didn't collect his mail or chucked it without reading it.

#51 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 09:55 AM:

I certainly didn't think you were defending him. I thought your proposal for his punishment was extremely lenient. That's not at all the same thing.

#52 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 10:37 AM:

mythago: can you comment professionally on "adverse possession"?

Jill gave a good summary. Adverse possession applies to real property (i.e. land). The rough version is that if you squat long enough and the rightful owner should have tried to kick you out, but didn't, you may gain a right to that land. An example would be if I move my fence five feet into your yard, and there it stays for two decades--I may gain ownership of those five feet. Or, if I regularly cut across your property every morning to walk to work, by the time I retire, I may have acquired a right to cut across your property whether you like it or not.

How long you have to use the land, whether the property owner should have or did know about it, etc., have specific legal requirements. But it applies to land, not intellectual property. IP law is tangled and arcane, and best approached with protective clothing.

#53 ::: Sir No-Name ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 11:26 AM:

A few years ago I started giving my undergrads a long lecture about how easy it was to catch plagiarists, reminding them that what I do is read academic prose for a living (I should be writing it too, instead of posting...) Since then I haven't caught anyone. Perhaps they're using my lecture as instruction on how to avoid being detected?

The incident that prompted this lecture was in some ethical, if not legal ways, similar to Gunn's. In a course with three papers, a student turned in second and third papers that were almost entirely plagiarized. His second paper, due to my pathological procrastination, was not graded before his third paper. When he turned in the third paper, he lifted it from the "New York Times Book Review." This was quickly uncovered. I then looked at his second paper, which turned out to have been lifted from a British Trotskyist newspaper's review of a historical work on the period the paper was supposed to be about. The student had meticulously eliminated all references to the reviewed work and tossed in a few sentences to make it seem mildly responsive to the assignment. Why not just write the freaking thing if you're going to put that much effort into it?

I was more lenient than I might otherwise have been because (1) I felt I should have got the second paper graded and caught him before he did it again; and (2) he was about to graduate. The last thing I said to him was: I suppose it's a little late to give you the lecture about wasting your $100,000 education.

Basically, this is what Gunn would have preferred. I don't know whether what I did was right, but I certainly did have some responsibility for letting the situation arise. Professors who let students' academic problems fester make them worse for everyone involved, including themselves.

Sir No-Name

P.S. Nicomachasus' blogspot post on this topic came up with Google ads for paper mills: how depressing is that?

#54 ::: Scorpio ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 12:35 PM:

Crap! People are getting entire doctorates by his methods. Cut-n-paste 'scholarship' is becoming the norm.

Derivative doesn't begin to describe it.

Scorpio
Eccentricity

#55 ::: Neil Gaiman ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 03:15 PM:

Teresa -- yup. It's fascinating.

If you're interested, the judgement is at http://www.ca7.uscourts.gov/op3.fwx?submit1=showop&caseno=03-1331.PDF

#56 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 03:57 PM:

Yowza. The judges even wrote it mostly in English! Thanks.

#57 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 04:11 PM:

Posner is well-known in the legal community for writing readable opinions. It helps that he writes the first drafts of his opinions himself, rather than having his law clerks do it.

(Easterbrook and someone-whose-name-I-am-blanking-on, also on the 7th Circuit, are also known for being good writers. I don't know if the 7th Circuit is lucky, has good publicity, or what.)

#58 ::: Another Damned Medievalist ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 04:45 PM:

I never thought you were outright defending Gunn, but I did see something of "blame the institution" in it -- as well as disagreeing entirely with allowing this person to repeat his education at the taxpayers' expense. I've caught a lot of dumb plagiarism in my time -- although it can take up to 4 hours per paper to document, and that's the internet cut-and-paste ones! It's really hard if a student rewrites, though. Often, I find students paraphrasing huge chunks of a scholarly work, then ending with a quote, which they cite. Many are genuinely surprised that they have to cite the bit they paraphrased, but are happy to rewrite given the chance.

As for the clever cheaters, though, especially those who use non-scholarly sources, it's hard. If, as gunn says, he used the same methods his entire university career, it makes sense that he might not have been caught -- as long as there was not too much variation in style, and the language was sufficiently bland, there might not have been any flags. I'm not saying there wasn't enough checking -- just that he may have been very good at what he did.

I don't know how easy it is in other fields, but I am getting better at creating exams that can't be plagiarized -- generally asking the students to analyze documents or to include documents we've read in class in relation to particular historical questions. It helps, but it makes my life much, much more difficult, as well as keeping me from asking what are traditionally "big" questions (the kind asked everywhere). It's a shame.
Finally, I certainly cannot believe that Gunn didn't know it was wrong, and think that much is true from his comments. At any rate, I can't see that he has anyone to blame but himself

#59 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 05:05 PM:

I clearly remember my English teacher my first year of high school giving the class a lecture about plagarism, why not to do it, and how she would catch you. This before the internet, she read a paragraph from a student essay aloud, then red the same passage from the Cliff Notes on the same book, telling us while we were free to buy the Cliff Notes, as a precaution she bought them too and would be checking for identical passages.

Last month, I helped a friend who's a junior high school English teacher slog through a pile of essays, using the internet to find where each essay was plagiarized from, then printing out the source and stapling it to the failed paper as proof for when the parents bitched. Out of fifty odd papers, there were only five that weren't plagiarized.

Unfortunately, there's no prize for catching plagiarists. You have to deal with lying students and bitchy parents.

The trouble with Kent going back and uncovering his three years of plagiarism is that they didn't do this with everyone, as far back as they could possibly go, and thereby pull all the degrees. Of course, they didn't do it, because it would cause too much of an upset, and cause more hassle than it would be worth to them.

However, when I went to college, there were two standard mechanisms set in place to ensure that people who didn't read the books wouldn't pass the courses or get their degrees: written exams, discussion sections, and senior oral examinations.

If someone flunked the written exams but produced killer essays, that's a pretty good way to notice a plagiarist, including the type of rich boy who paid other students to write his essays.

Discussion sections are another way to catch a plagiarist. I had a friend in graduate school who was paying his way through USC by writing original essays for Asian students who could hardly speak English, let alone write a graduate level essay in it. I helped him and hopefully hurt them by giving him enough high level mythological verbiage as to tip off the professors that students unable to order coffee with proper grammar were rather unlikely to say 'the Nymphs of the Hesperides' or 'Polyhymnia,' and would crash and burn if asked to discuss their essays in class.

Finally, senior orals are another way to guarantee that someone gets out of college with the capacity to think critically and discuss the literature.

In any case, with they guy at Kent, the best solution would be to fail him for the current course, retroactively change all of the other courses he'd been found to be plagiarizing in to "incomplete" with the option for him to turn in new essays, and put him on accademic probation. If he couldn't or wouldn't do the work, fail him and get another student.

#60 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 05:08 PM:

Make that "three standard mechanisms."

#61 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 05:20 PM:

"The wombat is not a bat, nor has it a womb."
      —from the introduction to The Compleat Wombat (OOP)

FWIW, over at CT, I copied someone else's post from up high in the thread and posted it below under my own name. Of course, I had to run over and tell you guys. This is why I don't cheat in real life.

#62 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 05:27 PM:

Now I thought wombats were mammals, and thus must have wombs (well, half of them). Learn something new every day.

#63 ::: ElizabethVomMarlo ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 05:31 PM:

I have mixed feelings about how this issue should be resolved. I kind of like Teresa's solution, but I don't see how it could be implemented without setting all kinds of precedent.

But I do believe that it is a university's job to explain what research means, including defining plagiarism. As far as I'm concerned, looking for obvious plagiarism in papers is just as important as grading short answer questions on exams. If this kid got through three years of this, then the university has failed.

I have met plenty of students who were taught how to plagiarize by their parents (or whose parents actually wrote their papers). It's the university's job to set the rules, explain them, and enforce them.

This issue is very near and dear to my heart because my full time job is teaching non-traditional adult students how to research.

I'm sure the increase of full-text searchable databases like Wilson and Expanded Academic that show articles in HTML makes plagiarism easier for the students. But for cyring out loud, it also makes it a ton easier to spot. How many undergrads can write lit-crit that way? It's also incredibly easy to search for exact text, too, so finding plagiarism ought to be equally easier.

#64 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 06:27 PM:

mythago - thanks for the affirmation on adverse possession. I figured it is such old, settled, common-law-style stuff that it would not have changed radically in the ten or so years it has been since I studied it.

Sidenote: On the NH bar exam, I actually forgot the term "adverse possession." I left a big enough space to dub it in later, should I remember it, and went on to write the rest of the essay, all the while saying two-word terms and phrases in my head, a la James Thurber's "The Night the Bed Fell on Father" ("namby-pamby, Perth Amboy, ipsy-pipsy... damn!"). Right at the end of that essay's half-hour, I remembered the term and plugged it into the hole I had left.

To this day, I get a mental block when I try to pull the term "adverse possession" out of my head. "Picardy third" often gets the same odd block when I indulge in musical discussions...

#65 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2004, 09:45 PM:

Now 'Picardy Third' I recognize. I just picture Patrick Stewart, in that episode when he lived an entire life on a long-dead planet, playing the little hand-flute thingie, and ending with a major third in a minor key.

#66 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 04:43 AM:

Re mammalian wombs:
In the discussion of the Pickled Dragon, you'll find a bit of pendant pedantry about three kinds of mammals.
All secrete milk or something like it from mammary glands of different types. Marsupials have a pouch (= marsupium in Latin) where most of the young's development takes place, but they DO have an organ called a womb, just for the early embryonic development. It's not like the placental mammal's womb. (see Comparative Anatomy)

#67 ::: Pete Darby ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 08:04 AM:

Okay, and looking over what my alma mater has actually done... pretty much what was said above: he's been given a mark of zero for completed coursework, but they've not failed him yet. They may give him the opportunity to do three years course work, but hey. They haven't decided yet.

If it was a burglar, and he'd not been caught before, but just before making off with the Pink Panther the cops linked him to three years of petty robbery and sent him down for five years, would folks say he should be given another chance because the cops were incompetent before?

Pfeh. He just reminds me of another local who got into the papers claiming the hospital was negligent becuase his mother died there. Sorry, his 85 year old mother who had suffered major head trauma and massive stroke. What did he think was going to happen? Again, there was much posturing of "planning to sue", and the institution getting a bum rap for saying nothing because they hadn't decided what to do about the accusation the moment it was made.

#68 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 10:39 AM:

Jill Smith : On the NH bar exam, I actually forgot the term "adverse possession."

I think you have just sent a chill down the spine of every lawyer reading this, no matter how near or far their own bar experience was.

#69 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 10:45 AM:

No, that would be the Rule Against Perpetuities.

#70 ::: MM ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 11:31 AM:

Having taught at 4 different universities in the states, I've seen a variety of forms of plagiarism. The most recent was, in fact, someone who wrote a 5-page paper in which only one sentence existed that I could not identify via a google search.

One sentence. Out of five pages.

The remarkable thing was, the FLOW of the piece was fine. It came from (I believe) thirteen different articles, but it was put together well enough that it was almost seamless. It was only brought to my attention because one of my TAs said, "You have to read this paper, it's amazing. Maybe too amazing." (In my defense, it was a 180-student class; I farmed out portions of the reading to my TAs, did some myself, and handled all the questionable papers myself.)

It is quite possible to put together a paper that reads well while incorporating different voices. I was impressed with how adeptly the student pulled it off. I told the student so.

Then I flunked him. He ended up retaking the course prior to his sophomore year.

#71 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 01:05 PM:

Ways to catch plagiarists - Quote their own words back to them. Specially in this day of "cut-paste" plagiarism where the plagiarist isn't always going to be typing the whole thing out by hand.

Diana Wynn-Jones has a very funny (and bitter) scene involving plagiarism in her book, "The Year of the Griffin." One character--the dean of the Magical University, and an utter incompetent--has certain grading policies relating to his first year students. The students who all write original essays force him to think too much, and he, upset, grades them poorly. Whereas the students who plagiarised, he reads easily, having read all this before in one form or other, and mistaking this for their comprehension of the (very basic) material he assigned, he grades them much higher. It's quite an amusing read, and I heartily recommend it.

#72 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 01:41 PM:

Another subtle problem with enforcing university regulations against Plagiarism: the Professor has considerable Academic Freedom in what to teach, how to teach it, and how to grade the students.

However, the Professor (at many Universities and colleges) is NOT allowed to take Disciplinary Action against a student. That must go through other channels, and usually a different Dean or Vice President.

The student must then be afforded full Due Process rights.

The professor might be able to say "once I give you a zero for this paper, you no longer have enough points from exams, papers, homework, and class attendance to pass, therefore I am giving you a grade of F. But I insist that this is no way a Disciplinary Action, but a purely Academic Decision."

This distinction comes from a United States Supreme Court decision, which I've discussed with Erwin Chemerinsky. The top-ranked graduate student in a Medical school was held to have "bad bedside manner" by male M.D. Professors, who admittedly hated her Feminist politics and her style of dress. They kicked her out of school.

She sued. They won. Court refused to impose on the school's jurisdiction, so long as it was purely Academic, and not Disciplinary. But the court did not give useful definitions on how to draw the line between the two...

Oddly parallel to how I was loopholed out of Ph.D. program, as a technically academic/procedural move, despite having done absolutely everything I was required to do to get the Ph.D., and was the top-ranking grad student in the department (i.e. founder of the regional chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery, teaching assistant to the Chairman, most-published student, highest score of doctoral qualifying exam, etc., etc.).

The right of the school, and the rights of the university are both worth defending.

In this plagiarism situation, it is a hard tightrope walk...

#73 ::: Scott Spiegelberg ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 02:07 PM:

Xopher, your Picardy third mnemonic was so good, I had to include it on my blog. (With proper citation, of course!)

#74 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 02:36 PM:

Scott: COOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLL!!!!! I mean, cough. That's right kindly of you, sir. I'm gonna go look and gloat over it. I love being cited!

#75 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 02:51 PM:

Wow, there it is. And your blog is so cool I just added it to my list of daily reads.

And btw, as far as I know I really did make up that mnemonic. The number of people who are aware of both Picardy Thirds and ST:TNG is probably reasonably small, so I doubt I'll get much contention over it.

#76 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 03:26 PM:

But the court did not give useful definitions on how to draw the line between the two...

"Once the ruling goes out, who cares where it comes down?
That's not my department!" said Justice Von Braun...

#77 ::: Scott Spiegelberg ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 04:31 PM:

Xopher,

We music theorists are very much the geek. In fact, we used to joke that a requirement for getting into the Eastman theory program was a thorough knowledge of Trek trivia. Two of the department servers were named after Trek characters, and I admit to having a little thrill that my daughter's initials are KES.

But I will say that I've never heard the connection with that specific episode before.

#78 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 04:53 PM:

Diana Wynn-Jones has a very funny (and bitter) scene involving plagiarism in her book, "The Year of the Griffin." One character--the dean of the Magical University, and an utter incompetent--has certain grading policies relating to his first year students. The students who all write original essays force him to think too much, and he, upset, grades them poorly. Whereas the students who plagiarised, he reads easily, having read all this before in one form or other, and mistaking this for their comprehension of the (very basic) material he assigned, he grades them much higher. It's quite an amusing read, and I heartily recommend it.

I don't.
The book struck me as being a College Novel by somebody who must've really disliked her college experience. Sort of an anti-Tam Lin.

It's not even particularly enjoyable as satire, being too heavy-handed and mean-spirited for that. (Something it shares with the most recent Harry Potter book, come to think of it... But that's another comment thread...)

But then I say this as one who enjoyed college enough to actively seek a job at a small liberal arts college. Make of that what you will.

#79 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 05:34 PM:

Chad: I'm just curious, but did you read the Dark Lord of Derkholm first, or did you come to Year of the Griffin on its own? I felt, given the set-up from Dark Lord, that the description of the University and its attendant bungling profs was spot on. The villain from Dark Lord required a great number of magicians, who didn't really need to be competent, and the University functioned as a sort of little magician-mill.

I'm glad you enjoyed all of your college experience. I went to two different colleges, and the first experience I had was wonderful, albeit a little restrictive since I went to a church owned school....but the school I transferred after my first year to was a miserable experience, at least as far as the teachers went, and DWJ's descriptions resonated well with me. (BTW, I was an art major for reference.)

I love Tam Lin, btw, but I think a lot of novels will come off a little shabby if you compare them to Tam Lin. :) And I don't see Tam Lin as being a strict YA novel--although many teens would certainly love it, so I think comparing the maturity and subtleties of the two does Wynne-Jones a slight injustice. It's certainly not her best work--the original Dark Lord and Howl's Moving Castle are my personal favourites. :)

#80 ::: Bill Blum ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 06:03 PM:

Chad Orzel wrote:
But then I say this as one who enjoyed college enough to actively seek a job at a small liberal arts college. Make of that what you will.

I passed up the opportunity to go back to school at a state school as an engineering major, and went to a small liberal arts school for my physics degree...

3 weeks after graduation, and I'm already working fulltime, with tuition reimbursement to start this fall for part-time grad school classes in engineering.

#81 ::: Peter Wilkinson ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 07:41 PM:

There's one small aspect to this affair that I think everyone's missed so far - not surprising, as I'm probably only aware of it because I work as an administrator in an English university.

As Simon Bradshaw has mentioned, students at English universities from the United Kingdom or elsewhere in the European Union pay up to £1125 a year towards their tuition: if they pay less than that, the government agency responsible for loans to students pays the balance.

Another government agency is responsible for ensuring that universities have "enough" money to teach their UK and EU students. This involves quite a complex formula, but the important part in this instance is that they estimate that it costs about £3000 a year to teach a student taking a degree in English (this is almost certainly an underestimate).

So the government pays the university another £2000 to cover this - but, under the most rigorous interpretation of some somewhat obfuscatory recent regulations, only if the student has handed in every assessible piece of work and taken every exam during the year concerned. It doesn't matter if the work is abysmally inadequate - but it must all have been submitted.

The University of Kent is therefore rather fortunate only to have discovered Mr Gunn's plagiarism after he had completed all the work for his course - albeit in a manner strongly at variance both with academic ethics and with the regulations for his course. They can safely claim that extra £2000.

#82 ::: Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 08:45 PM:

Chad: I'm just curious, but did you read the Dark Lord of Derkholm first, or did you come to Year of the Griffin on its own? I felt, given the set-up from Dark Lord, that the description of the University and its attendant bungling profs was spot on. The villain from Dark Lord required a great number of magicians, who didn't really need to be competent, and the University functioned as a sort of little magician-mill.

I had read Dark Lord first, and liked it, which is why I had bought Griffin in the first place. The educational bits still didn't feel like a natural part of that world, though, but more like an authorial decision to deal with some Issues on the topic.

I'm leaning toward the opinion that liking Dark Lord of Derkholm is the anomaly, though, as both novels are sort of an outgrowth of the Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which I wasn't very happy with, either, for much the same reason. In small doses, it's sort of amusing, but stretched to book length, it's really rather hard to take.

Satire, for me, requires a lighter touch than is found in any of those books.

I love Tam Lin, btw, but I think a lot of novels will come off a little shabby if you compare them to Tam Lin.

I'm not all that fond of Tam Lin, either (my, I'm cranky today...), though for entirely different reasons. I just mention it as an SF novel that struck me as the polar opposite of Year of the Griffin: Tam Lin feels like a book written by somebody who reallyreallyreally loved being a college student, where Year of the Griffin comes off as a book by somebody who regarded college as a dreadful chore.

(I don't know either author, by the way, so I hesitate to say that either of those is an accurate description, but that's how the books strike me...)

Having slagged off a bunch of well-regarded school stories, let me say that I really enjoyed Matt Ruff's Fool on the Hill, and Tom Perrotta's Joe College is a terrific mainstream College Novel. And as with all his books, Stephenson's The Big U has so much over-the-top verve that he manages to get away with things he shouldn't be able to.

#83 ::: Madeline ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2004, 11:14 PM:

Xopher: I believe HP typoed, and meant to say, "nor has it a wom." Wom-wom is a technical term for high technology, voodoo, or other mystical dangerousness; a la, "Don't f--k with the wom-wom." Wombats, despite their name, are painfully hopeless when it comes to mystical dangerousness—not only do they lack wom-wom, they don't even have a single wom.

As for Year of the Griffin, I'm watching the discussion with interest, as I recently picked up a copy to bring home to my housemate who collects Diana Wynne Jones. Alas, she had the exact same book already; so I determined to send it off to Any Soldier, but of course I had to read it first to make sure it was ok... I actually liked the cohesiveness of its story, and I thought it worked well, even though I've not read Dark Lord of Derkholm. The satire didn't seem overdone to me; I found it reminiscent of Terry Pratchet.

My all-time far-and-away favorite bit of college-related spec fic, though, is Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand.

#84 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 09, 2004, 11:07 AM:

Something about elephants goes here, but it's too tacky.

#85 ::: Raven ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2004, 09:17 PM:

Kevin Andrew Murphy wrote:

However, when I went to college, there were two standard mechanisms set in place to ensure that people who didn't read the books wouldn't pass the courses or get their degrees: written exams, discussion sections, and senior oral examinations.

And fear, and surprise, and ruthless efficiency... and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope....

#86 ::: Farah ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2004, 10:16 AM:

One reason Kent may not have caught this young man is that UK professors are still very niave about the frequency and ease of plagiarism. Almost all of us came through a school system with very little assessed project work. We mostly didn't plagiarise from essay mills because it wouldn't have affected our grades. There would have been *no point*. (Copying our friends' work to make sure we made a deadline was common tho'). Unless a piece of work shrieks fake, we tend to assume the best.

Plus, the numbers of assignments set has plummeted. Some departments ask for two pieces of work a term (12 weeks), which doesn't give much room to get to know a student's style. I had one essay this term that the student might have got away with had she not been stupid enough to attach an abstract in her own words.

Alongside this, it is only recently that the UK system went over to all work counting to grades. And again, most faculty weren't themselves taught this way. We aren't sharing our students' mindset.

It's going to be about five more years (I think) before the youngest faculty will share the project-work, all grades count, orientation of our students. I suspect they will be a lot more suspicious than we are.

Farah

#87 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 04:39 PM:

ElizabethVomMarlo wrote: " It's also incredibly easy to search for exact text, too, so finding plagiarism ought to be equally easier."

I am now wondering how long it will take before we start seeing cases of plagiarizing students running their texts through WhiteSmoke (as discussed in the most recent Open Thread) to change all the adjectives in it, so's to prevent full-text searches from finding hits.

#88 ::: Liam Creighton ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2004, 03:52 PM:

As a graduate of the University of Kent who started on the English Literature course (but later transferred to Film), I find it very unlikely that Michael Gunn was ignorant of his crime. From day one it's made abundantly clear that plagiarism is wrong - not only in the course handbook, but in lectures and in each individual department's introductory materials.

I agree that his indiscretions should have been picked up on earlier, but I suspect I know why he was found out just before graduation. Both fully-fledged lecturers and TA's take seminar groups and mark essays at UKC. It's unlikely but possible that every one of Gunn's three years of essays was marked by a TA. At the end of the academic year the department meets to moderate the grades of graduating students. The work of borderline candidates is reconsidered and sometimes re-graded. It would have been during this process, I think, that inconsistencies in Gunn's work would have been noticed. It is unfortunate for Gunn that he wasn't warned earlier, preferably in the dry-run of the first year, but anyone who thinks they can get through university without any attempt at original thought isn't really getting into the spirit of things.

If this case had occurred fifteen years ago there would be no question: Gunn would be denied his degree because he plagiarised. There would be no financial considerations to muddy the waters because he would not have paid a single penny for his education. There were no tuition fees and a maintenance grant was available to all university students in the UK. Even now fees are means-tested and those whose parents have low incomes are exempt from paying tuition fees. Student loans do not have to be repaid if the account holder's earnings drop below 10,000ukp (about $17,000) per year.

If this had occurred at a US university, where fees are higher and the student loan set-up is different, maybe his financial situation would offer mitigating circumstances. Not so in the UK - in my view at least.

This case, if used properly, could form a very useful argument for those campaigning to abolish tuition fees and make British higher education free once more.

#89 ::: John Houghton finds comment spam ::: (view all by) ::: July 05, 2004, 06:31 PM:

Excuse me while I wash my hands.

#90 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2004, 11:50 AM:

Fending off a Plagiarist, By KIM LANEGRAN, The Chronicle of Higher Education, From the issue dated July 2, 2004

Fending Off a Plagiarist

An assistant professor found herself having to prove that her dissertation was really hers...

By KIM LANEGRAN

A colleague on my campus calls me the "scourge of student plagiarists." I'm proud of that reputation. But I had an experience this year in which plagiarism nearly defeated me, shaking my faith in academe's core values as well as my ability to turn my students into honest scholars.

While I was resigned to fighting plagiarists in my classroom, I had not expected to have to fight one for credit for my own dissertation. A doctoral student at Northeast Urban University -- I'll call him Mr. X -- presented my dissertation as his own. He received a Ph.D. and took an excellent research job at Prominent African University. Through my subsequent efforts, he lost his degree, his job, and his reputation....

[JVP: worth reading!]

#91 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2004, 02:03 PM:

Jonathon, links have to start with "http://", or browsers will think they're relative to the current page:

http://chronicle.com/jobs/2004/07/2004070201c.htm

#92 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2004, 02:05 PM:

Ugh, sorry about the mis-spelled name, Jonathan!

#93 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2004, 05:31 PM:

Jeremy Leader:

No apology necessary. Indeed, my thanks to you for providing the corrected link. Isn't that one heck of a story?

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