Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Plagiarizing Star

As a preparation for my trip to England I purchased a "Times" at the Schipol airport. The format and the style sure have changed, but at least there is a lot of opinion still in the paper. And lo and behold, one of my favorite English commentators, Libby Purves, had a comment about the English university system and a current plagiarist who is a TV star, Raj Persaud. The piece is called "The shame of our lap-dancing universities."

The plagiarist in question was also a hot topic at breakfast, except that no one could remember his name, it was just "that TV doctor guy". His license to practice medicine as a psychiatrist has been suspended for three months on account of blatant plagiarism. Persaud has admitted to publishing the works of others, for example a paper that had to be withdrawn from Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry after the real author of the piece on the Milgram experiment, Thomas Blass, noted that over 50% of the paper was lifted from his work. Persaud didn't understand the fuss, it was just a "typographical error" here.

For another paper, Persaud had asked a colleague for permission to use his works - and then copied it word for word without quotation marks or source.

He was only suspended for three months - and continue practicing after that - because he didn't actually harm a patient, didn't gain financially from the plagiarism, and didn't defraud any funding organizations. They are also sure that it won't happen again, which is rather surprising, seeing that he seems to be a repeat offender. He stepped down from his radio show in 2006 when accusations of plagiarism arose, but returned in 2007, the BBC reports. I wonder if anyone had checked up on his thesis work? Do we really want plagiarists practicing medicine and building bridges and airplanes?

Third International Conference on Plagiarism

I attended the Third International Conference on Plagiarism in Newcastle, England this past week and presented a paper there on my 2007 test of plagiarism detection software. Since the conference was sponsored by one of the large PDS systems used in England, I was expecting more of user's group meeting than a real conference.

And there were, of course, quite some papers that appeared to have been accepted only on the basis of them reporting something positive on the use of this system. But there were some very interesting points made and some interesting talks given, I want to put down some pointers here.
  • One of the major discussion points was the shift perceived in student cheating from copy & paste to purchase of term papers from paper mills and ghostwriters. Since there is not a chance of detecting this kind of cheating with software, there is a call for more education about plagiarism. The University of Derby has a system it calls PLATO - Plagiarism Teaching Online that is designed to fill this gap. I will be evaluating this system in the near future.
  • Another point was the topic of self-plagiarism. Tracey Bretag from the University of South Australia has been doing a lot of research on the topic.
  • Fintan Culwin from London South Bank University did an empirical study on letting his students use a plagiarism detection service as a learning tool for their own writing. He measured the amount of "dirt" = plagiarism in the first drafts submitted and in the final versions of their papers - and was amazed to see them introducing "new dirt" while getting rid of some of the "old dirt".
  • John Lesko runs a combined print and online journal on plagiarism calles Plagiary.
  • There was a rumor that there exists a system that automatically grades essay questions, and a bit of a discussion on the ethics and legalities of using such a system.
  • Jonathan Bailey of PlagiarismToday spoke about how copyright applies to web sites and how to go about getting takedown notices served.
  • Garry Allen of RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia had some interesting graphs from Google Trends. You can query "plagiarism" and see how often people search using this term. More interesting is a search for "free essays" - you can literally see the end of the terms on the graphs! But the peaks are going down, there is no proof that this is because more plagiarism detection systems are being used. This could be because there now exist many link lists for students with relevant links, so they don't have to search Google. Interesting enough, the most such requests seem to come from India....
England itself has become a scary place, I was last there 20 years ago. The place is infested with video cameras. They were in the elevators, at breakfast, in the classrooms, outside the classrooms, all over the streets. I couldn't find one in the bathrooms, but I'm sure they were there. Gave me the creeps.

Update: Will Murray, one of the conference organizers notes: "the main sponsor was Ofqual (an independent UK national regulating body), iParadigms only sponsored the dinner on Tuesday and an independent academic committe decided on which papers should be included."