is an excerpt from the book
Web Stalkers, by Rampant TechPress.
Plagiarism and the Web Revolution
Web Plagiarism has
become an epidemic in academia largely as a result of the high
precision and recall of the Google search engine and the huge
volumes of intellectual property on the web.
According to the
Northern Kentucky University (library.nku.edu)
many students think that it is acceptable to “paraphrase” the
works of others and they have one of the best definitions that I
Students anxious about committing
plagiarism often ask:
"How much do I have to change a
sentence to be sure I'm not plagiarizing?" A simple answer to this
is: If you have to ask, you're probably plagiarizing. This is
Avoiding plagiarism is not an
exercise in inventive paraphrasing. There is no magic number of
words that you can add or change to make a passage your own.
Original work demands original
thought and organization of thoughts.
As a retired Adjunct
Professor Emeritus who makes my living selling my words I find
plagiarism especially offensive. Plagiarism, by its very
definition cannot be an accident, and it is an intentional act of
theft. No amount of excuses or pleas of ignorance can exonerate a
plagiarist from their fundamental dishonesty.
The Semantics of Plagiarism
As we have noted,
the detection of plagiarism involves the stealing of
“original work and
thought”. Plagiarism can be
subtle, and many students believe that they can change one or two
words in a sentence and avoid detection. So, how do we detect the
work of the sly plagiarist who replaces words with synonyms and
alters the sentence structure?
– A reference to “House” could be changed to dwelling, abode,
– A reference to “house” could be changed to housing, home, etc.
– Adverbs and adjectives can be replaced and altered to conceal
these attempts to hide their wrongdoing, the plagiarist is still
detected thanks to sophisticated web tools and the world of
applied Artificial Intelligence. Sophisticated software such as
those found at Turnitin.com employ pattern matching
algorithms that glean the “meaning of each phrase” and compare it
to existing works on the Internet.
Let’s take a closer
look at how this works. Software such as the Princeton
Wordnet provides hierarchies of synonyms that can
replicate the plagiarist’s attempts to conceal their theft. This
author worked extensive with semantic networks and they can often
lead to surprising results. Once, I entered a semantic search
against a major legal database to see of any published court
ruling had ever used the profane “F” word.
I ran the search
using full synonym expansion and was surprised to find dozens of
results, each with the highlighted word “Congress”. Confused, I
consulted the semantic network and discovered that a “Congress”
like the “F” word, is a union of two bodies!
Other web search
engine companies are developing search tools that have the
surprising side-effect of being able to detect plagiarism. Their
goal is to allow web users to highlight a paragraph of text and
press a button called
“Show me more like
Internally, these tools analyze the paragraph,
apply structure, word stem and synonym rules, and scour the web
for a suitable match.
The epidemic of web content
According to a televised investigation report
on the hit TV show Primetime Thursday, they found a growing
problem of cheating and plagiarism, facilitated by the massive
volumes of content on the web. From junior high schools to the
Ivy League, Primetime found that students find the temptation to
cit-and-paste from the web an irresistible temptation. According
to the Primetime Thursday report, many students believe that
“everyone” plagiarizes, and they use this as an excuse for their
"It's unfair on your part, if
you're studying, you know, so many hours for an exam and everybody
else in the class gets an 'A' cheating," says Sharon, a college
"So you want to get in the game and cheat, too."
The web is a double-edged sword. Just as it
has facilitated the theft of content, it has also enabled tools
for publishers and professors to quickly detect stolen content.
Let’s take a closer look.
Fortunately, it’s just as easy for someone to
detect plagiarism as it is for the scumbags to copy it off of
other people’s web pages. There are several web sites that aid in
Amazon – The Amazon “search inside the book”
feature has resulted in dozens of lawsuits for plagiarism as
unscrupulous authors were caught within days of the introduction
of the feature.
Google – The Google search engine is used by
almost all College professors today and the new Google Print
facility is now indexing thousands of books into the Google
Turnitin.com – This wonderful web site is
available to academics everywhere and provides instant web content
matching for papers and College essays. (www.turnitin.com)
Now that the web has
given us tools to detect the plagiarist, the threat of getting
caught has acted as a deterrent. However, the punishments for the
plagiarist can run the gamut from a slap-on-the hand to loss of
A Question of Honor
Since I make my living selling my work, I have
an intense hatred for those who steal the work of others. When I
was a professor at a major state university I would always make
sure that all of my students understood the difference between
“fair use”, author attribution, and the seriousness of stealing
the works of others and calling them your own.
The punishments for plagiarists are the most
severe at schools that employ and enforce an honor code such as
the U.S. military academies.
“We will not Lie, Cheat, Steal, nor Tolerate Among us those Who Do”
Please note that the honor code requires any
student to turn-in any other student who they suspect of lying,
cheating or stealing. This created a self-policing system to
ensure personal honor and integrity.
John Garmany, a noted author with Rampant TechPress and a Graduate of West Point notes that the honor code
made plagiarism virtually non-existent:
“We were well versed in plagiarism and we would never think of using
someone else’s work without giving them credit.
An honor code violation meant dishonor and dismissal from West Point and
we took it very seriously.
For example, we were allowed to ask another cadet for help, but we were
required to mention the helper by name, even if we did not use any
of their ideas directly”
Sadly, enforcement of web content theft is
sporadic at best, even among the top schools.
Punishment for Plagiarists
In my experience as an Adjunct professor,
plagiarism is largely tolerated at major U.S. colleges and
universities, and I found it to be extremely frustrating.
I remember one case where a U.S. Military
officer submitted a computer program that matched the work of
another, line for line. Upon investigation I discovered that he
had lifted someone else’s work from a trash bin and copied it,
adding only his name, as the author.
I was especially offended because this officer
was a graduate of a U.S. Military academy, and was completely
familiar with the honor code and the ethics of an officer and a
gentleman. Upon confrontation, he was completely unremorseful and
gave the lame excuse “everyone
In this case I wanted to show no mercy, and I
attempted to flunk the student and file a complaint against him
with the university. I was fully aware that the Armed Forces
would not be favorable to him, that he would loose his security
clearance and could be summarily dismissed from the armed forces,
perhaps loosing his retirement and most of all, his personal
Unfortunately, the Dean of my College was far
more tolerant than I was, and refused to allow me to pursue my
complaint. To me, it seems that no threat of consequences enables
the web thief.
Plagiarism, intentional or not, is considered
stealing and can expose you to serious liability. In 2004 I was
reviewing a job interview book and discovered an entire page that
I had written which had been stolen and published by one of the
world’s largest publishers. Fortunately for the publisher, I was
also one of their authors, and I was familiar with their contract
that holds the author solely responsible for ensuring that their
content is their own work.
Those who are victims of plagiarism are
entitled to the following remedies:
To have the offending book recalled from
distribution – This can cost the publisher over $100k, and the
author was required to pay for it.
To an official published apology – The
plagiarist must publicly admit their theft and acknowledge the
rightful creator of the material.
Civil damages – In one case, the victim sued
the author and received over a quarter of a million dollars. The
author lost his house, savings and was ruined by their act.
Laws against Plagiarism
According to the
United State Constitution,
“The Congress shall have power to
promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for
limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive rights to
their respective writings and discoveries”.
The U.S. Supreme court has also addressed the
plagiarism issue, and also uses the “Latham Act” to justify
punitive damages for plagiarism.
In 1948, Doubleday copyrighted and published
General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s book, Crusade in Europe,
which was about the D-Day invasion and Fox later created a TV
series from it.
For the fiftieth anniversary of World War II,
a third party company named Dastar edited the Crusade in Europe
television series, added some new material, and released a video
set called World War II Campaign in Europe without attribution to
In the famous Dastar vs. Twentieth Century Fox
case (539 US 23), the court found Dastar guilty of plagiarism for
copying Twentieth Century Fox material without giving them proper
their complaint […] claims
that Dastar's sale of Campaigns “without proper credit” to the
Crusade television series constitutes “reverse passing off” in
violation of § 43(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a)
In this case we see that the U.S. Supreme
court doubled the amount of the damages. When plagiarism is
intentional and with malice, courts are allowed to impose
“punitive” damages, doubling and even tripling the amount of the
actual damage to punish the plagiarist:
“The ultimate test […] is whether
the public is likely to be deceived or confused”.
The court awarded Dastar's
profits to respondents and doubled them pursuant to § 35 of the
Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1117(a), to deter future infringing
conduct by petitioner.