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Plagiarism: a study in the spectacular fall of Dr. Chris Spence!

The Craft of Detecting Plagiarism

With the fast-paced development of the Internet, plagiarism detection software has given an edge to professors in the fight against plagiarism.  Commercial products such as attempt to cover the online world along with a process of screening student assignments against a databank of past assignments.  According to the Turnitin website, a student paper receives an “originality score” after it is compared against 45 billion current and archived webpages, 337 million student papers and an additional 130 million published articles.  Every day, the database of student papers increases by 190,000 completed assignments. (“Turnitin Content”, 2015)

With such powerful tools at the disposal of professors, it seems surprising that plagiarism is still a common practice.  A recent Toronto Star article reported on studies showing nearly one in three students have used online material verbatim in their assignments.  (Infantry, 2013, p. GT4) Chris Spence completed his dissertation in 1996, prior to the development of Turnitin.  Today, it is an open question as to how his dissertation would score through the process of a Turnitin originality report.  In an interesting twist of events, Spence’s lawyer has said that he “will introduce a motion* to throw out the charges [of plagiarism].  He said there has been an abuse of process because Spence’s dissertation was run through commonly used plagiarism-detecting software without Spence’s consent, which violates university policy.” (Rushowy, 2014, p. GT3)

*The proposed motion was intended as part of a university tribunal scheduled for July 15, 2014.  This tribunal hearing was cancelled as the result of other legal issues.  A new hearing has yet to be scheduled.

Left to Her Own Devices...

Even without the advent and development of plagiarism detecting software, an experienced professor is still a formidable opponent for students who plagiarize.  While there are many ways for instructors to sniff out plagiarism, professors may begin the process by innocently collecting writing samples near the beginning of a term.  This procedure may be disguised as an in-class writing assignment where there is no opportunity for students to appropriate another person’s writing.  By obtaining a writing sample, professors secure a benchmark to compare the writing style against future assignments.

One method of detecting plagiarism in an assignment is to look for a “silver bullet” as a kind of starting place.  In this case, I am referring to the “silver bullet” as a segment of writing in a student’s assignment that seems out of place or outside of the margins of the particular student’s writing style, or appears to have been written by someone with more writing experience.  Even if the plagiarism is not immediately matched to the original source, it gives the professor a lead.  Finding other questionable segments and comparing them against a search of the web and comparing them to student work from previous semesters usually produces a match to the original source.

Also, do not forget that the professor is the architect of each assignment, they are very familiar with the subject matter, and they have a good memory or record of assignments from previous semesters and different sections of the same course.


In this exercise, you will have the opportunity to practice the intrepid art of plagiarism detection.  Put yourself in the shoes of your professor or those of an avid newsreader.  Carefully read Dr. Spence’s opinion article, Without School Sports, Everyone Loses, and try to find the so-called “silver bullet.”  Discuss your results.


Ask for the plagiarism workshop, and find out!


See the sub-heading: Hint.

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