A case of plagiarism

TurnItIn is a weapon of mass destruction.

Let’s say you’re a professor of Slavic studies or history and a student includes in his term paper a capsule history of Georgia, containing the phrase

one of the first countries in the world to adopt Christianity as an official religion

OK, rather an obscure fact, but interesting, in a way. Would be more interesting if the date were given, but you can’t have everything. You read the rest of the paper, and it’s all the same: lots of stuff that’s vaguely right, nothing that’s precisely wrong. Call it a B.

But, not having been born yesterday, you run the paper through TurnItIn, which promptly pops up this phrase from Wikipedia:

one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion


That’s the sound of the alarm bell that goes off in your head. You look at the phrase more carefully, trying to figure out whether it’s simply the case of two writers finding the one right way to say something.

Well, actually, no: the phrase is really quite odd, once you stare at it. Wouldn’t the usual phrase be “to convert to Christianity” or “to embrace Christianity”? And what in hell is “an” official religion? Would you expect there to be more than one? Why not “its official religion” or “the official religion”? And why “official religion” rather than the more common “state religion” or “established religion”? And why the unnecessary “in the world”? What does that add to “one of the first countries”?

All right, all right, maybe it was a coincidence. Or maybe you can pretend to yourself it was a coincidence, so as not to mess up the student’s record. You remind yourself to start your next lecture with Andy Sabl’s maxim that composition is done with the keyboard, not the mouse.

Then you look at the rest of the TurnItIn printout, and you groan aloud. The student wrote:

After a brief period of independence following the Russian revolution, the Red Army forced Georgia to join the Soviet Union in 1922. As the Soviet Union crumbled at the end of the Cold War, Georgia regained its independence in 1991, but its early years were marked by instability, corruption, and economic crises.

And the same Wikipedia entry has:

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Georgia had a brief period of independence as a Democratic Republic (1918-1921), which was terminated by the Red Army invasion of Georgia. Georgia became part of the Soviet Union in 1922 and regained its independence in 1991. Early post-Soviet years was marked by a civil unrest and economic crisis.

Oh, sh*t! It’s not just the facts that are parallel: “brief period of independence,” “regained its independence,” “early years,” “marked by … crisis.” Also the use of “Red Army” to stand for the Soviet state, which makes sense in the Wikipedia entry, since it refers to an invasion, but not in the student paper.

And you notice that there’s no fact in the passage from the student’s paper that wasn’t in the source: not, for example, the name of any Georgian political leader, not the fact that Stalin was a Georgian.

Now you can’t even pretend to believe it’s a coincidence. If the original sentences in question came from different sources, you might give the student the benefit of the doubt, but two unattributed near-quotes from the same source? Plagiarism, beyond reasonable doubt.

At this point you begin to prepare for two very unpleasant interviews: one with the student, to tell him he’s in deep doo-doo, and a second with the Dean of Students, to talk about what sort of disciplinary action she’s going to take. Is it worth suspending the kid for cheating just this once? But if he’s not suspended, how will you convince the others that borrowing other people’s words is a career-wrecking habit?

Of course, they do these things right at the service academies: one strike and you’re out. “We will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate among us those who do.”

Probably the best resolution of the problem would be to run the little plagiarist for President.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com