Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Language: Anything New Under the Sun?

Continuing with the theme of education since it's early September and school is just about to start here's something I found on originality.

A couple of years ago the IRC chat channel running for people who like the XKCD webcomic site started an experiment. In order to increase the general level of discourse they programmed a bot (a computer program) to watch an moderate everything that is being typed in the chat channel. The primary purpose of the bot is to collect and remember everything that has been typed and to punish anyone who types a sentence that has been entered before.

Yes... punished. Type anything that has been typed before and you're muted for two seconds. For two seconds you can't type. The second time it's four seconds. Then eight. Then sixteen. Every six hours your punishment time decays by half for the next time you violate the rules.

The intent is to force people to type interesting and original sentences. "Yeah" is going to get you muted. Any longer and more interesting phrase is much more likely to be original. You can read all about it in ROBOT9000 and #xkcd-signal: Attacking Noise in Chat.

If you think about it all the bot is doing is preventing plagiarism by punishing violators. Of course a person who logs on to a chat channel isn't expected to know everything that's been typed before. So the problem on the xkcd chat channel is not so much plagiarism as it is an overabundance of inane conversation.

Plagiarism is a problem in schools though. Thanks to technology much like the bot written for xkcd it's also easier to catch than ever before. Actually... thanks to something as simple as a Google search a person who suspects a phrase or paragraph isn't original to a student can find it almost immediately. Not only can students find information (which they may decide to copy verbatim) but the schools and teachers can spot the copies quite easily. The results could end up being an arms race between the cheats and the schools.

Luckily there are people like Steven Dutch to help stop the war from getting out of hand. Steven Dutch teaches natural and applied sciences at the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay. He wrote Sense and Nonsense about Plagiarism. An article I wish all students and teachers would read.

1 comment:

Elizabeth McClung said...

I was rather disappointed with the article, in that it really seemed to nit pick without clarity. To provide clear counter examples would have been useful both for students trying to understand plagerism and to give concrete weight to statements. For example, attacking the plagerised paragraph on the Pillow Fort, I immediately understood in reading that it was the USE of an outdated word which made the section plagerized. For example, someone who takes a paragraph from 1600's and includes it in a paper today stating that 'thus Richard hath holpen monks' IS plagerism because the author is too lazy or too dim to bother to change it to 'So Richard then had helped the monks'.

However, to quote sources from the early 90's about today's plagerism is like quoting statments about books pre printing press about the publications of Dickens. The charge of plagerism for all but muck-rakers of highly placed individuals is that they have simply copied or bought a paper. When, in a class of 11, 3 papers show up all word for word, copied from an essay source, the main concern is not if the other 8 did enough citation versus quotation (this happened to my spouse) or when students turn in obscure works of Lewis Carroll in Creative Writing classes as their own (this happened to me), or roommate submit the same paper to two courses. It is the habits of over borrowing and lazy research that most universities are trying to teach.