My Blog is a Plagiarist’s Dream

I’ve had to punish plagiarists. It isn’t a fun job, but when I taught freshman English courses at a university during my Master’s program, I had to deal with it. As you all know, universities don’t take kindly to academic theft, and it is a serious issue that writing instructors must address.

My first experience with this occurred during my very first course taught. We made it to the end of the course, when final essays were due, and while reading one of them, I became impressed with myself. This student had made so much progress. This student’s final essay was written in a smooth and coherent way compared to all of this student’s other writing throughout the semester. I got through the first page and thought what a great teacher I must be for this student to have improved so immensely during my course. I really had a knack for this teaching thing!

And then it dawned on me, slowly so that my pride could slink away and humility could rise up in its place. This student had not improved. This student had plagiarized! (I wasn’t as great of a teacher as I thought!)

To make a long story short, I proved the plagiarism by finding the paper on the Internet, and I confronted the student with my supervisor’s help. The student admitted to buying the paper, and we made a deal for rewriting and resubmitting. I went pretty easy on the student.

Example-of-Article-Plagiarism-Diagram

However, that experience taught me to have a clear plagiarism policy in my classroom and to include the university’s policy on my syllabus. From then on, I made it clear at the beginning, during, and toward the end of every semester that plagiarism of any form would result in failure of the course. This policy was pounded into my students’ heads.

Things went smoothly. Students seemed to understand that I wasn’t joking around. And then a few years later it happened again. I spotted it right away, given that the student had written about an essay from an English composition textbook that we weren’t using in my class. The student had not bought the essay this time, but instead had borrowed it from a friend who had previously taken English 1010. However, they forgot to take into account the different textbook and my propensity for giving assignments that required some measure of creativity instead of regurgitating what was in the textbook. This student suffered the consequences of my no-tolerance policy. This student was angry with me, but I stood my ground.

It was hard being the bad person in both of these situations. I don’t like punishing students, because I happen to really like students. My teaching philosophy is based on Peter Elbow’s idea that writing teachers should like students and like student writing. I loved teaching composition courses, as I wrote about for my very first blog post, and I found my time in the classroom delightful. It broke my heart to have to deal with plagiarism and to punish students for it.

Yet I find that I might be indirectly contributing to plagiarism through my blog. My blog is a plagiarist’s dream when it comes to information about books and reader responses to literature. And I suspect that many high school and college students have benefited from my musings. I have no proof, of course, but I have the search terms that have led people to my blog. Here’s a sampling of them.  (I’ve linked them to my blog posts on these books.)

 

“why is death used in mrs. dalloway

“similarities between brave new world and pride and prejudice

“what is the connection between the british class system and the novel brave new world

harry potter as a literary hero”

“what are three ways technology is portrayed in george orwells 1984

mrs dalloway death theme”

swallows and amazons book essay”

kill mockingbird book summary”

the little prince quotes explained”

“feminism in portrait of a lady

 

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but these seem like desperate search terms from young adults who have essays due in less than twelve hours. In some ways, I hope my thoughts on these novels helped them to make sense of their assignments and perhaps gave them a way to write the essay on their own. Maybe my posts even prompted them to read the books for themselves. The more cynical part of me wonders if any of my blog posts have been turned in to teachers under false names. If that’s the case, I hope they were caught, learned their lesson, and now love literature so much that they’d rather read and respond themselves than rely on my thoughts.

I think my blog is really about encouraging others to read and respond on their own. I don’t claim to have all of the answers or to have the final say on any of the books I review. I enjoy reading and therefore I enjoy writing about books. I hope that leads others to do the same.

What interesting search terms have you come across? Have you noticed any patterns that may explain your blog traffic?   

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51 thoughts on “My Blog is a Plagiarist’s Dream

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  1. I’d never considered that my book reviews could be used as plagiarism! That would be such a violation to me. I hope that website such as TurnItIn.com search blogs to try and find matches.

    1. It does feel violating! I’m not sure of the ins and outs of Turnitin, but maybe it would match blogs. I know just typing phrases into a search engine will often bring up exact matches to a blog and a teacher could find it that way.

  2. As a high school English teacher, I have to agree. If my teenage students actually take the time to look, they will find your musings very, very helpful. I also should say that public high schools tend to be extremely lenient when it comes to plagiarism. Recourse is only taken when the student has multiple offenses. It also only really has an effect if the plagiarism takes place in the same course during the same year. A student can get caught two or three times in the same course and suffer the consequences there, and these previous transgressions in English are ignored even if said student commits the same offense in social studies. The student is usually given the benefit of the doubt and assumed to “not know any better.” I am not surprised that students are taking these bad habits to college.

    1. Hmm, this is fascinating. I can see why high schools would be lenient; kids are learning and unsure of just how to go about doing research ethically. I guess I would hope that great teachers like you are using these mistakes as ways to teach lessons. Hopefully the students are learning from getting caught as well.

  3. I’ve only ever found searches in relation to things like “review of *insert book name”. Although once I had a search for “are there lesbian sex scenes in The Discovery of Witches”.
    The uni I taught at used Turnitin and I’m pretty sure that it covers everything on the internet, but it is frustrating to feel that your work is not being given the correct credit.

    1. It can be frustrating. I’m interested in your take on Turnitin. I read some research articles about how forcing students and teachers to use it can be an ethical issue at universities. What was your experience?

      1. I think that turnitin is a good tool for universities to have. In saying that, teachers also need to understand its limitations and that it is a computer program with flaws like most software. Students at my university could refuse to put things through turnitin if they felt strongly enough about it, but I am not sure if that has changed.

  4. you know what they say: copying from one person is called plagiarism; copying from a number of people is called RESEARCH.

    1. You’re funny. I will say that RESEARCH is really about synthesizing sources and joining a conversation, not copying many people! And original research (data gathering) doesn’t fit this at all. But you still made me laugh, as always.

  5. I remember writing a book review for “For One More Day” by Mitch Albom last year. I too encountered several such search words.

    But my most viewed post is “Being Comfortable In Silence”. Almost everyday, several people find my blog searching for “comfortable silence”, “silence in relationships”, “sharing silence” and so on. I suppose that shows that society as a whole is pretty uncomfortable with silence, and people, despite enjoying silence, need some sort of reassurance that they are not the only ones. 🙂

    1. Also, your blog definitely has been a source of encouragement for me for reading a variety of books. I’ve read and enjoyed several books (classics) after reading about them on your blog. I’ve even started tackling the BBC book list challenge. 🙂
      I also love reading your reviews on the books that I’ve already read. They often present me with newer insights. 🙂

  6. As someone who was recently a high school English student, I can say that I often looked to blogs to jump-start my essay writing. I never copied from them directly, but I definitely used them to develop my own ideas on themes and symbols. Now that I’m in college, I’ve sharpened by literary brain enough that I rarely use the internet for inspiration, but I still use it to pull quotes from novels that I don’t already have digital copies of.

    1. Yay! A success story. This makes me happy. Thanks for sharing. I hope every student is like you. Brainstorming is certainly a great thing to do with blogs.

  7. I am so glad you mentioned this, because I’ve wondered about it too on my own blog. A couple search terms from mine:

    “why aren’t ambitions of high men fulfilled in tennyson’s poetry”

    “writing style of the great gatsby”

    So I’ve been suspicious. But I think I’ll take your attitude, that if they’re using my posts to plaigiarize, I hope they get caught and learn from it, but most of all I hope they learn that books aren’t just for English class; they’re loved by real people who aren’t so different from themselves.

  8. Such a beautiful and a straight forward post . You are a great teacher , because you stood up for something that you respect so much .I don’t know about your students , but I’m sure learning so much from your blog posts 🙂 Myself being a lit lover , I will agree that plagiarism is a sin . A great post once again . happy weekend . 🙂

    1. Thank you! I like to think that my students learned and had a good time in class, but I’m sure some of them aren’t all that happy with me. 🙂

      1. That is a good point. If we weren’t copying it by hand from the books, I’m sure we would have stolen things wholesale from the books at the library lol.

  9. I agree that the internet makes it easy for students to plagiarize or swipe ideas, but let’s not forget everyone has free will and can choose not to plagiarize. I have seen only search terms for book titles and authors through my blog, nothing very interesting like the searches you’ve seen.

  10. I’m surprised and shocked by the amount of students who commit plagiarism. I know that a friend of a friend is currently being investigated on suspicion of plagiarism and I’ve heard of other cases at my university. Don’t they realise how bad it is to steal someone else’s words or ideas and pass them off as your own?

    Before I hand in any pieces of my work, I always run it through Turnitin to check that I haven’t accidentally plagiarised anything. I know, it’s extremely unlikely but I still prefer to check my work thoroughly, just in case I’ve missed a citation or a reference.

    I had a look through the search terms on my blog and there are a few that could potentially be students searching for information:

    “why jane austen is important” — being the Austen-lover that I am, that sounds like a post I could easily write! 😉

    “trend of dystopian novels”

    “the trend of dystopian novels and movies”

    And then, scrolling down the list, I came across this search term: “things to type into google”. I guess that was someone who was really, really bored!

    1. Ha! That’s funny. I might have to try it when I’m bored. Yes, it is appalling and sad how much we as humans tend to try shortcuts and shortchange ourselves rather than doing the work. That’s my attitude with housework, so I can’t be too hard on those who don’t like writing, right?

  11. P.S. I just read your comment about Turnitin in response to hls, further up the page. I didn’t know that some universities are forcing students to use it.

    I have access to it via my uni but using it is definitely optional. I just choose to use it in order to be on the safe side. 🙂

    1. I know. It seems weird that it would be a policy. I think most places just have it and allow teachers to make the decision on whether or not to use it.

  12. I think I’m definitely targeted by plagiarists. I think a number of the books I’ve reviewed on my blog are on school curriculums like The Great Gatsby, The Book Thief, Wuthering Heights, but especially Pigeon English which is easily the post with my second-most views. My blog gets found by search terms like ‘Pigeon English themes’, ‘racism in Wuthering Heights’, ‘Gatsby movie compared to book’, ‘Death as a narrator in The Book Thief’. I also get hits from some sites teachers use to find plagiarism. I’m still a pretty new blogger and hadn’t thought too much about adding references to my own posts, most of my thoughts come straight out of my… head. But my Breaking Bad post definitely needed one, so I’ve added it, and I think I’ll be very vigilant in future.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences! I liked reading your comment. It makes sense that if we write about books on curriculums, that we’ll get traffic from those seeking school information. I probably could do better with including a reference to the book I cite from with the date and edition information.

  13. I am careful when I’ve read a book and am writing a review, NOT to read any other reviews on Goodreads, etc. because it’s so easy for others’ ideas to creep in, especially if they’ve summed up the themes astutely! So I post my own review and read others’ after, often thinking, “I wish I’d said that!”

    1. I know! Sometimes those goodreads reviews are astute and I wish I had been cool enough to think of it. Sometimes I avoid them, but not as carefully as it sounds like you do. 🙂

  14. Emily, I am not at all surprised. Your words can easily be found and used, especially when you review a book that might appear on a syllabus. The other sad truth is the business of writing for college students is robust and people pay for papers. I have seen a couple of articles that speak of this business through the eyes of the ghost writers. They comment on how poorly written the requests are complete with typos. The writers can write an A paper, B paper, C+ paper. One client complained and when the writer said with the email you sent me, if I gave you an A paper, the teacher would have known it to be fraud. You should be flattered and appalled, but not surprised. BTG

    1. 🙂 I had forgotten about the online industry of getting custom papers written. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing some myself, as it know I could, but my integrity won’t let me. Maybe I need to start charging for my blog posts, although I don’t know how I’d figure out who needs to pay and who doesn’t. I guess it is a problem that can’t be solved and one that I don’t really need to solve, except in my own classroom. Thanks for reminding me of another aspect of this.

  15. I am about to teach my first Comp1 course this fall and found your blog to be helpful. I tend to be naive and I forget that people actually do things like this – steal other peoples hard work.

    1. I am glad this was helpful to you! Best of luck with teaching your first class. It is a delightful and terrifying experience that first time. I hope you love it as much as I did!

  16. In high-school plagiarism is rife so much so that I’ve read an essay and thought to myself ‘this is great but before I give this piece a top grade I’ll just google a few phrases.’ More often than not, I’m bummed to say, it’s copied. 😦 Why do students cheat? Is the current generation lazier because the information is at their fingertips? The internet certainly makes it easier to find answers but i think the point that I’m trying to make is – why don’t they care??

    1. That is the million dollar question. As teachers, we really want them to care, as much as we do. I don’t have the answer, but I will say that I’m sure they aren’t any worse than generations before. There will always be hard working people and lazy people.

  17. As once a long time freshmen comp teacher myself, I enjoyed your post and want to share one of my plagiarism experiences. Two students, a male and a female. handed in the exact same paper at the exact same time. I was disgusted and a bit insulted. Met with them individually. Male readily said he was over at the female’s dorm shooting pool and female asked him for his paper and he gave it to her. She said she didn’t think I’d mind that I would see it as an “exchange of ideas.” I told her never come to my class again, Whether or not this was according to university rules, I didn’t care and she didn’t argue. But I had some sympathy for the male–he was honest and I could see he had been pressured into it. I let him continue with the class warning him I would allow not even the whiff of funny business.

    1. Oh wow! That’s blatant. I can see how one would find themselves in that situation. In high school, I had some friends ask to see my science homework at the beginning of class. Without thinking, I handed it over and then realized how stupid that was when the teacher caught them copying it. He knew I was a good student and kid and just reminded me not to let others “trick” me into cheating. I’ve always felt bad about that, for being so clueless and for allowing it to happen.

  18. I have wondered if my blog has been used for plagiarism in high school English classrooms, too! Especially the comparative posts — like my one on the differences between the book and movie versions of “Cry, the Beloved Country,” or even the one on “The Walking Dead” (though I have a hard time imagining teachers assigning anything about zombies). Then again, if I’m perplexed by a book (e.g., “Brave New World”) I do find it helpful to read other people’s thoughts about it before trying to formulate my own. That’s not plagiarism, though — it’s participating in and extending a conversation! Ultimately, I don’t think that book bloggers (or academics, or anyone, really) should feel responsible for other people misusing their material.

    1. Yeah, we shouldn’t feel responsible. I do feel curious about exactly what goes on behind those search terms and I feel slightly violated, but there’s nothing I can do and it really isn’t my problem. I love that my posts might contribute to a larger conversation on a book, as you mention, so I guess we’ll just go with that. 🙂

  19. Wow, this is amazing! My blog is quite new and has only a handful of followers, but I’m working hard to increase its reach. The notion of someone being able to do a quick search and steal my thoughts is shocking. I had no idea I could determine if people were doing so, but I’m going to spend some time today learning how that works. I have zero tolerance when it comes to plagiarism. Inspiration that ignites your thought process? Fine. Presenting my thoughts, word for word, as your own? Absolutely not. Thanks for this post!

    1. Yeah, I’m all for inspiring people, but it feels yucky to think that my writing could be “stolen.” I know some bloggers have copyright notices on their blogs. I wonder how to go about doing that. It could be helpful, at least for peace of mind.

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