With a title like ‘Plagiarism and the internet’, you are expecting me to write about how plagiarism is infinitely easier and infinitely more common than it was before the advent of the internet. Well it is. But it’s also true that the internet has made it a lot easier to discover whether someone is plagiarising, and where they are getting their materials from.
Jimmy Wales, one of the Wikipedia founders, explains all.
The German defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has announced his resignation after admitting that he had plagiarised parts of his PhD from the University of Bayreuth. Online tools played a big role in exposing his methods: for almost two weeks a group worked to identify the specific sections from his thesis that were lifted straight from other sources. When they realised that Google Docs – although a useful tool for small group collaboration – wasn’t the right platform for mass participation in the project, they created a “wiki” (a site for collaborative works) named PlagiPedia to handle the effort.
In just a few days the wiki went into overdrive: from no page views on 16 February to nearly 2m on 18 February. A university investigation – culminating in a decision described by Debora Weber–Wulff, a professor of media and computing at Berlin university, as the fastest by a German academic institution in 400 years – resulted in the revocation of Zu Guttenberg’s doctorate. To date, the wiki has received 40,000 comments and 15,000 Facebook “likes”, and there are 1,224 pages on it exploring the details of the accusations of plagiarism against him.
Last week a second wiki was launched to explore whether Saif Gaddafi’s PhD thesis from the London School of Economics included plagiarism. A few days later Britain’s Media Standards Trust unveiled a website called churnalism.com which helps expose plagiarism in the media. By pasting press releases into a “churn engine” readers can discover the extent to which they have been recycled, verbatim, in online news articles. The internet is thought to have fostered a cut-and-paste culture of uncritical plagiarism: schoolteachers and university lecturers in particular regularly complain about coursework lifted straight off the site that I run, Wikipedia. But, if nothing else, sites like Plagipedia and churnalism.com show us that the internet is perfectly capable of correcting its own follies.
Of course Saif Gaddafi is guilty of far worse than plagiarism. But his history with the LSE is a black mark for the institution, and in particular for the examiners, such as Lord Desai, who approved his thesis. We may be able to forgive them some aspects of this – plagiarism is sometimes notoriously difficult to detect, particularly when you have only a small committee of experts doing the examining.
In the open-source software world we have a saying: “Many eyeballs make all bugs shallow.” Similarly, many people working together to look for plagiarism can be dramatically more effective than only a few.
The key internet rule now is not to avoid copying, but to admit it when you do.
The text on the image reads:
You go on YouTube for example and you post a video clip…within hours you’ll have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people doing variations of your act….It used to be that if you were in the realm of popular culture, you would be inspired by an earlier performance, by an earlier style, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, for example. But that would really be incumbent upon you to create an original style, a trademark style. That’s what you were known by. Now the important thing is to copy. It’s a copy culture. [Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob]