LiteratEye #9: Plagiarism Anxiety Syndrome

Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Literary Hoaxes

Here’s the ninth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #9: Plagiarism Anxiety Syndrome
By W.J. Elvin III
April 10, 2009

A fistful of dollarsCheats and liars. They make life interesting, and they hold up a mirror for those of us poised to cast the first stone.

And they can make you wonder, where did I miss out? Where do these smart, crooked people get their tricks? How did I happen to miss the courses in how to pick the pockets of the stocks-and-bonds crowd?

Maybe there are no courses, just a mindset.

Used to be, the higher education mindset was reflected in lofty phrases like “Civium in moribus re publicae salus.” That’s the University of Florida’s motto: “The welfare of the state depends upon the morals of the people.”

What’s Latin for “Screw You Jack, I Got Mine”?

Cheating and lying have to incubate somewhere. Even if there’s no “Advanced Financial Scamming” course offered on campus, there’s likely a climate of corruption. Do a search for “suspected plagiarism” and see for yourself.

The incredible assortment of regulations, rules, policies and procedures demonstrate that these institutions of higher learning suffer from Plagiarism Anxiety Syndrome.

In a nutshell, plagiarism is claiming someone else’s words as your own. We could complicate it, but let’s not. In this discussion, the focus is on the apparently common student tactic of purchasing essays and term papers to turn in as original work.

Once upon a time, you had to copy out stuff from an old book or magazine that teacher might not have seen. Today, you just place your order online. There are over 250 essay provider sites, some shells for a “parent” company.

When an issue like this pops up on media radar, of course, next we get grandstanding politicians proposing more laws. There are laws in many states making it illegal to sell essays or term papers as, you might say, recyclables. But enforcement? No easy task.

For example, an investigation by The Chronicle of Higher Education found one leading purveyor headquartered in the Ukraine while producing essays in the Philippines. Writers for that outfit telecommute from the U.S., India, Nigeria and elsewhere, and there is also a local contingent, laboring in the Philippines offices under the watchful eyes of cameras feeding to the Ukraine.

Educators react to plagiarism in various ways. Most seem indignant, as if the fakery reflects on their performance. Some are protective, blaming the culture for the actions of an individual. And then there’s the cosmic, zen-like “what can we learn from this?” attitude.

And of course there’s fear. Charging a student with plagiarism can trigger a lot of trouble, ranging from parental outrage to lawsuits. There are also those who shrug it off; why waste time on the cheaters when it should be devoted to honest students?

Catching the culprits does take effort. There are various detection systems such as Turnitin. There is a free detection tool, Doc Cop. Surely the smart and crafty student can figure ways to outsmart the software.

I like the third degree approach to detection. Given President Obama’s enlightened policies on torture, there should be a lot of second-hand water-boards available as government surplus.

Oh, I know, there’d be a big fuss about that. So, you could just grill them a bit. Ask for an explanation of this or that phrase or thought expressed in the written work. As an educator pointed out in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “If they respond with blank stares and shrugged shoulders, there’s a chance they haven’t read, much less written, their own paper.”

What’s really amusing is that not so long ago, the concept of plagiarism didn’t even exist as we know it. Text just sort of migrated along from one book to the next, perhaps changed and possibly improved. But as ownership became profitable, then came copyrights and lawsuits.

It’s also interesting that students who plagiarize are following in the footsteps of certain author/professors. Much has been written about that; one book that I found informative, even if the conclusions are a bit over the top, is Past Imperfect by Peter Charles Hoffer.

I’ve breezed by a number of interesting angles here, just hitting some of the highlights of the issue. A somewhat dated but excellent overview, with particular focus on the Internet, is contained in Combating Plagiarism, a pdf from Congressional Quarterly.

By the way, even if your education didn’t include the art of financial scamming, there’s still a buck to be made. You can apply what you do know, or your research skills, to writing for the essay and term paper market. I’ve read where some of those writers make $40 a page, not too shabby, though I suppose that’s high end.

I’d predict pay cuts in the offing. The economy, you know? Parents footing the bills for fake essays and term papers will have to make adjustments for funds they’ve recently lost to financial scammers.

(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact


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