Sunday, June 1, 2008

Fighting plagiarism with Google

By Chuck in China

I was helping a teacher who was grading some papers she was not sure about. She gave me the two papers and I quickly did a Google search and located both papers on the Web. She was shocked at how quickly I sniffed out the plagiarism. So she went back through all of her papers and all night she has been coming to my room and dropping off papers. Not all of them, just the ones that she, in her heightened state of awareness, found suspect.

All but one I found to be taken from the web. I found them all easily through Google. Just pick out an uncommon phrase from the paper and run it through Google and it pops up. Interestingly, all of the papers that were used came from various Chinese websites "dedicated" to English learning.

I used this method this semester when I suspected quite a few essays in my Western Lit class. I quickly found 6 plagiarists. This doesn't surprise me at all.

The quick lessons for those teaching substantive courses here is:

1. Be careful in assigning essay assignments. Don't pick a broad topic (as my colleague did) such as: "Write a persuasive essay on an important subject" or (as I did the first time I made this mistake) "Choose one of Shakespeare's sonnets, analyze it, and tell me why it appeals to you". Their are thousands of these essays floating around on the Internet on the Chinese websites alone (as a quick search of Google will show). The next time I chose an essay topic, I wanted to use O. Henry. But I first did a Google search to see which of his stories had the least number of references on the Web. I certainly wasn't going to use "Cop and the Anthem" (which all Chinese students know by heart anyway).

2. Use Google to check the originality of any essays you assign. It takes less than a minute to check each paper. You may be surprised how quick and how many plagiarists you find.

3. In my writing classes, I have decidedly swung away from giving take-home essays as assignments. Now, I give writing assignments in class to be completed in class. Apart from the plagiarism issue, it hones the students' skills in actually writing under some kind of immediate pressure. It forces them to produce good English on the spot. Also, as Chinese students who are forced to deal with the exam system here (CET, TEM, PET), a writing component is a part of all those exams so giving them time pressure to perform will help them in the short run, too.

Anyway, that's how I spent the first night of my summer vacation - tracking down plagiarism for a fellow colleague and, (I hope) imparting some useful advice for those who are new to the game here.


Debbie said...

I do the same thing from day one of a course--just choose a string of 5 words from an essay, type them into Google with quotation marks around them, and there they are (or not, hopefully).

Students are always surprised.

Jerry said...

What do you do if the students paraphrase what they are copying?

Anonymous said...

If it's an ESL class, especially in a country (like Slovakia) where plagiarism is widespread, I would be satisfied with a paraphrased essay. In some ways, paraphrasing demands even more proficiency than writing original material.
- English Teacher in Slovakia