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Relaxed plagiarism standards as a way to keep the tuition dollars flowing from foreign students

Interesting comment thread at Basbøll’s blog regarding the difficult position of college writing instructors when confronted with blatant student plagiarism.

Randall Westgren writes:

I believe the easiest part of the patchwriting [plagiarism] phenomenon to understand is why writing instructors are leading the charge. Professor Howard is caught between a herd of high-value (i.e. full-tuition and fees paid) students who have negligible communication skills in the language of instruction and the administration and governing board of her university who actively seek these students to balance the budget. And the rhetoric instructors, writing coaches, and ESL instructors are “letting down” the university AND these students when they cannot ameliorate their English language within the bounds of the US curricula. I suspect the pressure on persons like Professor Howard is immense, as they are caught between the professoriate’s understanding of plagiarism as a failure of academic principle and the wishful thinking of the administrators and international students in the admission decision.

This doesn’t explain Laurence Tribe, Ed Wegman, Karl Weick, Frank Fischer, Matthew Whitaker, etc., but I suppose it all goes together: if much-honored faculty are copying without attribution, it’s harder to motivate instructors at these universities to insist that their hard-pressed students write everything in their own words.


  1. James says:

    One of things seemingly missing from the debates on plagiarism and now including patchwriting is the baserate probability of producing both the same and similar phrases and sentences when writing about the same topic. Without the baserate, how does one logically conclude ‘dishonesty’ except in the most blatant cases? An analysis of data from ETS’s Analytical Writing section would allow for this determination and thus for some degree of plagiarism ranging for an error or mistake to blatant and intentional.

    Perhaps this study has been done and I am aware of it?

  2. John Mashey says:

    1) Ginsparg & Citron, Patterns of Text Reuse in a Scientific Corpus is an interesting study.

    2) Try looking at the 3-pager here, which does a side-by-side plagiarism display stirred by Andrew’s “The subtle funk of just a little poultry offal (whereas I've done this by hand, not realizing how much I would do.)

    It is very hard to reach strong conclusions from isolated phrases, but patterns in context are much more compelling, i.e., this is in some sense a a kind of statistical inference problem, almost akin to telco fraud detection, where data keeps arriving.
    Start at the beginning of p.2, and as reading sentences, estimate the probability of plagiarism for the text seen so far.

  3. Steve Sailer says:

    Cheating on papers, tests, and homework is pretty standard in the more marginal computer science programs that depend upon foreign full load tuition payers.

    • Rahul says:

      Do the “best” diploma mills even need you to write any tests or homework?

      • Anonymous says:

        it’s not just diploma mills:

        “The affair of the LSE Libya Links refers to the various connections that existed between the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the Libyan government and its leader Muammar Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. The NGO Gaddafi Foundation pledged to donate £1.5 million over five years to a research centre, LSE Global Governance, of which £300k were paid. In addition, LSE Enterprise established a contract worth £2.2 million to train Libyan officials. In 2008, the LSE granted a PhD degree[1] to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the Libyan leader, for a dissertation. Currently, allegations circulate that Gaddafi’s thesis was ghost-written and/or plagiarised. In December 2010, Muammar Gaddafi addressed members of the School in a video link-up where he was addressed as “Brother Leader” and received an LSE cap previously given to Nelson Mandela.”

  4. […] New data on plagiarism in science (well, physics, computer science, and mathematics): only a small fraction of ArXiv preprints include lots of text copied from other ArXiv preprints. They mostly come from a relatively small number of prolific serial offenders, concentrated in certain developing countries (not China or India). The papers in question mostly aren’t much cited, and copy papers that themselves aren’t much cited. (ht John Mashey) […]

  5. […] “[I]f much-honored faculty are copying without attribution, it’s harder to motivate instructors at these universities to insist that their hard-pressed students write everything in their own words,” writes Andrew Gelman. […]

  6. harry mendell says:

    I did a Google search on “Fueled by angry white men” and got back 616 matches from many different source articles. Perhaps the real problem is the overuse of cliches combined with a the recounting of a known historical events. If I am comparing two articles on Bayes should I say one plagiarizes the other if they both use a coin toss with a fair and a load coin as an example?

    I think that to qualify as plagiarism that it is necessary that the thought and supposed creative or original insight the author is taking credit for was copied from someone else’s work, relegating the author to editing not writing. I do not think it is plagiarism to recount, in one’s argument, commonly understood ideas or memes such as “Fueled by angry white men” because “Fueled by” is a common cliche as is “angry white men”. If someone is recounting a commonly understood history it is understood that it should have a resemblance to others recounting the same history.

    I think it is interesting to think about what has actually been stolen. The use of cliches and common word groupings isn’t theft, it may be uninspiring from a word craft measure, but I would argue that is a different criticism. The real question is are these Whitaker’s personal beliefs and he is presenting what he believes is important. It is original in the sense that it is his collection of beliefs which tell a particular story. It is obviously not an original way to express the ideas at the word group and sometime sentence level. It all depends on ones level of focus. At a typesetters contest using the same font…

    • Andrew says:


      If you’re talking about Whitaker here, the plagiarism was a lot more than a single 5-word phrase. I agree that, if was just that phrase, there’d be nothing to go on.

      Regarding the larger point, as discussed at various points on this blog over the years, the problem with plagiarism is that the lack of attribution. Whitaker can express his personal beliefs and at the same time clearly attribute the source of his material. By hiding the source he’s destroying any scholarly value of his work.

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