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           Plagiarism and the Web

The following 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 ( many students think that it is acceptable to “paraphrase” the works of others and they have one of the best definitions that I have seen: 

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 important.

 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?

·        Synonyms – A reference to “House” could be changed to dwelling, abode, apartment, etc.

·        Word Stems – A reference to “house” could be changed to housing, home, etc.

·        Semantic Structure – Adverbs and adjectives can be replaced and altered to conceal the crime.

Fortunately, despite 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 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 this”.

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 Theft

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 theft:

"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 student.

"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.

Detecting Plagiarism

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 detecting plagiarism.

·        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 engine.

· – This wonderful web site is available to academics everywhere and provides instant web content matching for papers and College essays. (

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 does it”. 

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 honor.

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 Fox.

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 credit:

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.

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