Commentary

For students on plagiarism: If you can google it, I can google it

By the time plagiarism software was invented students forgot how to use a library. Google is now enough to catch most of them.

“If you can google it, I can google it.”

I saw the student’s face drop as the recognition hit him.

“Even if it’s on the second page of the google results.”

His eyes went wide with the realization that it was true indeed. Stiff might be hidden from a simpleton professor on the second page of Google results where no man goes – but it doesn’t hide his cunning ass if I do it backwards.

He wasn’t a stupid person. He just never thought of looking at things from the professor’s perspective. For him, university (and all the people in it) was a homogenous mass of single-purpose minds, all set on testing him. The fact that I could make the most basic things he could struck him as a revelation right there on the spot.

You would think that the young generation is tech savvy – but stereotypes are misleading. Young people just click “Accept all” faster than we ever did and download whatever they are told. (Also, they have no concept of privacy because no one introduced them to it, save a virtue-signaling disliking of corporations, so they can yap about that. But state surveillance? The state would never abuse it, they believe.) In truth, they are less knowledgeable than us in many ways because they haven’t seen the evolution of the internet and as a consequence they don’t know what’s the principle behind the stuff they are using.

The following text is about students who plagiarize in academic setting. It is a minority that demands the majority of my attention these days and that feels wrong. Plagiarists are admittedly not the sharpest segment of the student body but they can still shock with their lack of imagination and insight. Such as the kid who was shocked that I found out that he copied paragraphs from The Atlantic just by googling it.

The truth is that young people are genuinely shocked every time I pull the obscure and hardly-known trick of googling them when I check for plagiarism. They get shocked. Every. Single. Time. (I would love to just run their papers through a plagiarism software but the university doesn’t pay for one. It is not good at catching plagiarism in languages other than English and bilingual plagiarism – when they find something in their own language and run it through G translate.)

You would not guess which one of us has grown up without Google: the students or I. And you would also be wrong if you tried to guess who is more tech savvy there. Word processors are a mystery the regularly fail to grasp and they never seem to know what is private and what is public and visible to whom. And when it comes to communication their ignorance is ranging from using emojis and ancient English slang in essays to addressing me “Hey teacher” or worse.

Plagiarism software is redundant against these people as it has been developed to check for text borrowed from academic literature. It became superfluous in catching text-thieves because they don’t use books anymore – they don’t even use academic texts if they can avoid it. They just google things and make me a pretty collage from Wikipedia.

By the time plagiarism software caught up with the body of academic literature stored in libraries, students forgot how to use them. The idea that they could be expected to go to a library is so alien to them they were outraged when I suggested it, as if I was trying to subject them to disproportionate torture for no reason. No reason because everyone knows that books only have old information in them. They genuinely believe they can’t be expected to physically visit a library and then find out where the stuff is on the shelves. If I push them I may even get a doctor’s note that they are allergic to ink or susceptible to anxiety attack at the sight of shelves.

Of course, maybe they are just spoiled by universities vying for their custom – as education has come to be regarded as a commodity that one has to provide in exchange for money – as opposed to a place where you actually have to study. Your professor can’t do it for you. In this sense I am sorry for them. Education has gone from a good investment (for free) to a minimum requirement on the job market that is sold at a luxury price in a few decades. Their sense of entitlement that is applicable in a customer service situation should not be applicable when it comes to getting a degree because it is not exactly a purchase transaction, no matter the price. But the academic body is also split on the issue and many have never gave an honest thought to which side they should be on. The administration is increasingly acting as corporate management where sales numbers trump every other considerations – with tragic outcomes for students, faculty and for society as a whole. It is ranging from the obvious, like the student loan debt tragedy to less visible consequences like the opportunity cost of sending academically disinclined students to university, of years not spent earning money, of career choices misguided by the misunderstood prestige of a degree. Of degree inflation and of stress on the faculty. And indeed time wasted on the worst students who should be elsewhere – rather than the ones who deserve my attention because they could benefit from it.

Today I don’t even need a plagiarism software to catch a thieving student. It’s enough to put their text into the Google search bar and their sources will come right up. And apparently that fact can shock some of them.

There are dead giveaways to a plagiarizing student.

I am not going to educate anyone on the proper use of the English language but when a student goes from bumbling idiot to eloquent expert between paragraphs, even I know which one to google.

It is also a telltale sign when the student makes different arguments in different parts of the essay – and not because he is trying to address the issue from multiple angles. He simply copied the lines from different sources who disagreed. Once I even found an entire paragraph dedicated to a homonym that had nothing to do with the essay topic, but obviously came up in the search results. 

The intros are usually the students’ own and they can described by the formula:

“The essay is about [THE THING IN THE TITLE]. [THE THING IN THE TITLE] is very relevant/important.”

The closing paragraph is also easily predictable. It will come to the same conclusion. But when it comes to the middle part, that is the one that trips them up plagiarism-wise.

There is the tedious high school habit of trying to come up with some historic background or the equivalent – even if I explicitly ask them only to write down their thoughts. That is because I was the one who told them the background in class so reading it back in their papers just make them look stupid to me, even if they get it right.

The worst thing about the historic background paragraph is that it is almost always stolen from the internet. There is so much online that it feels pointless to rephrase it for their own so they don’t. So they get fired from class even if their actual thoughts came later in the paper.

And let me press this again, I always tell them not to add historical background, just their own thoughts. There isn’t even a word count limit that would explain why they do that. Speaking of minimum word count…

It happens that someone has nothing to say so they make me read through generic garbage, just to fill the word count requirement. This is why I prefer not to give a minimal word count. “Just your thoughts, observations and associations.” The door is wide open to go outside and bring their own hobby or expertise into the class.

But the lack of minimal word count can also upset certain students. They act like the assignment is ‘a certain number of words on paper’ rather than an essay, so if I don’t clarify how many words I want to see they report me at the administration for unclear standards. (Let it be said that I have given excellent grades for just a few well-written sentences when they contained the student’s own thoughts and they were original.) The flip side of this logic is that if they send me enough words I can not fail them. According to them.

Which leads me to another observation. The idea that they should think rather than remember and regurgitate is so scary for many that they work their hardest to recount someone else’s ideas and forego original thinking altogether. It is an alarming development that became more pronounced recently. How many times have they been punished for writing down an original thought or not remembering who said what (according to the textbook)?

The social sciences are not the realm of multiple choice tests. Those who devise them are reacting to a terrible demand coming from test-optimized minds to reduce the complexity of the world into simple, high school-like tests of high certainty and only one right answer.

Whatever schools are doing, whatever they are made to do in lieu of education, to produce a testable body of biomass for political measuring purposes, it is killing minds. And by the time they hit university they are not only infantilized but righteously demand even more simplicity.

The rant above has nothing to do with coddled minds. It is not about snowflakes who learn the terrible lesson that seeking out offence in anything gets them social rewards – and thus only ever train that mental muscle during their studies (i.e. offence seeking) to gain social currency. This is just students who fared well in tests and got themselves into university – but never heard of the need of not stealing text and never learned to put themselves into the place of other people, like the reader of their essay.

That the reader is at least as bright as they are and the reader can also use Google. That the reader does this a lot (grading essays) and doesn’t do rookie mistakes like mistaking quotes with plagiarism. There is a gaping hole where students’ ability to seeing things from others’ point of view should be.

And I am not talking about emotional empathy. I am not talking about obscure things about being a professor that you will only know if you become a professor yourself. It is not something they can not guess about me – or about a hiring professional later in their career. I am talking about things that one can guess by the force of sheer logic. Like the fact that if he could google it – so can the professor. Or that the hiring professional receives a lot of applications – and how that feels like. The ability to play chess depends on your ability to see the game from the other’s perspective – at least in things that you can guess.

But the growing inability to see things from others’ perspective also shows in expectations to provide a written feedback as elaborate as the essay itself on why I graded it the way I did. It is one thing to expect an automated response from a HR department. But a personalized feedback to hundreds or thousands of applicants should not even be expected. Just recently a student went viral for complaining that his very elaborate rejection letter calling him talentless is the same, word for word, with other students who got rejected. Yes, it is stupid, but it also tells me a story of applicants demanding personalized evaluation and explanation of why they were rejected. To which the university reacted in this knee-jerk way.

But oftentimes demanding a reason for a decision is just seeking a handle on it and an argument to attack. If I have to justify why an essay was bad, what he should have written instead, where he was wrong, and where he gave proof that he hasn’t even read the material that he was supposed to – I have to compose a legally bullet-proof counter-essay (careful not to be offensive even though I am bringing bad news that will offend them). And all they use it for is attacking my decision and demanding even more of my time and attention. (In this sense writing just the bare minimum in feedback is the equivalent of just saying “no” to things in private life to avoid others latching onto an excuse to turn that “no” into a “yes”.)

The wild thing is that they are not even vicious when they demand a counter-essay. They just never thought it through. Just by multiplying the number of students with the amount of text they submit explains to them why they can’t have that in writing (they get it in person if they ask) but it is often the first time someone points it out to them. That other people exist and they have their own points of view. That the student just wrote one essay but I read a hundred.

It is also a new thing that students caught plagiarizing treat it as a game of catch. According to this new paradigm it is my job to be plagiarism police – as well as professor. And if I catch them (and prove it – they demand proof of what they did so they can attack my proof) they happily rewrite it for me and delete the offending paragraph. There, happy? And they expect a reward because they complied, didn’t they? They returned the stolen goods when they were caught, what is my problem?

The absolute pinnacle of this behavior was when a student managed to copy from a text I myself have published online. When he was caught and I told him he even quoted me, personally, not just any text, he was proud of himself and claimed that he should get a better grade for finding the right text online. It wasn’t sarcasm or cheek. It was a genuine request he made to the dean and me.

The sense of entitlement that is installed by the commodity-approach to education is so strong that students also feel empowered to threaten professors for unpleasant grades or for catching them cheating. It feels bad when they are caught and a bad grade feels the same as being offended. Any bad news feels like an offense – what is it if not a sign that something politically incorrect is afoot?

Again, this is not a text about students these days or the imaginary deterioration of intellectual niveau. Everything students are doing and assuming as a group has been suggested to them explicitly or implicitly by society. The low standards, the focus on testing, the customer rights approach to their education. And if they fail to inspect basic things in life from other people’s perspective that, too, came from a constant encouragement to introspect and a lack of education to look at things from other perspectives. It contributes to the deterioration of public life – and yet it could be avoided so easily. Why am I the first one to tell them at 22?

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