I am taking a break from the heart-squeezing, brain-sizzling, throat-closing terror of the Exams Countdown (T-19hrs) to grapple with another, more quietly troubling reality: a greater number of my students may have plagiarized than I thought.
I committed an error of naivete; I assumed that substantial plagiarism would be detectable primarily by virtue of profound qualitative discrepancies. The writing of anything pilfered from that warehouse of temptation we call the internet would simply be so much better than that which the student would produce on his or own that I couldn't possibly fail to notice. Then I somehow found my way to something called directessay.com. Though unfamiliar with the site, I very well understood the premise. Essays for sale on a range of topics, with a wide range of word counts, and with no shred of academic integrity (though I must acknowledge the site does insist that its materials are for "research purposes only," that it must be cited, and that plagiarism is bad, mmmkay, etc. Clearly this is akin to an assault-rifle manufacturer making extra-special sure you understand that its guns aren't really for shooting).
I did a search for Doctor Faustus, remembering that a disproportionate number of my students this term chose to write their second papers on it. The site search engine did its thing and I got my first taste of what it had to offer--which is to say, rubbish. The snippets intended to entice you into purchasing one of these essays are, to the trained eye looking for the wrong thing, laughable. Reconsidering their purpose, however, reveals the genius of the thing. I assumed that an essay mill would seek to provide its customers with work that would make them look very good--polished writing, few errors. How little did I know.
When a pool shark tries to hustle you, he makes sure he beats you by just enough to keep you laying bets. It's no good running 100 balls every time he addresses the table if that compels the mark to flee the hall with wallet unbreached. You lose 100 to 98, 100 to 96. They play worse than they can to keep you in the game. It's called "playing under speed."
These essays (the ones I saw, at any rate) are just bad enough to be the real thing. They're a hustle. I don't know from where they get them--perhaps they are or were the real thing, and they're just being recycled for profit. They sound like they were written by their intended buyers. I must admit, I wasn't looking for this when I had my plagiarism glasses on. Obviously I will be far more vigilant in the future now that I know that bad writing is no guarantee of original work. I don't know if any of my students actually purchased or in other ways borrowed material from this site or one of its nefarious brethren--I certainly prefer to think that they did not. Nevertheless, my confidence is diminished.
Which brings me to another site of which I'd heard: turnitin.com. Every Moriarty must have its Holmes; this site promises to sniff out plagiarism by allowing instructors to submit student work that is then subjected to a thorough investigation. I don't have any experience with it--if any of you do, I'd like to hear about it. Individual licenses are available, as are departmental ones. If the site does good work--verifiably good work--I don't see why the department shouldn't pony up the dough if the price isn't extortionate. If the problem is as serious as everyone seems to think it is, then those of us on the "front lines" should be provided with adequate means to combat it. A google search of a few suspect lines won't always reveal a crime of intellect.
Obviously, that's a combative stance, and it's not the one I want to assume automatically with my students. But they do plagiarize, some of them, and those that do deserve to get caught.