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  • Calling Off the Hounds:Technology and the Visibility of Plagiarism
  • James P. Purdy (bio)

Harvard's much publicized decision in summer 2003 to deny admission to Blair Hornstine because of allegations of plagiarism (Green and Russell 2003; Kantrowitz and Scelfo 2003) reminds those of us in English studies not only of the negative social stigma accompanying accusations of plagiarism, but also of the drastic actions academic institutions will take to avoid being labeled as tolerating plagiarism—or any behavior closely akin to it. Hornstine, who had already been accepted to Harvard, was accused of having "information from sources that was not properly attributed" in five articles published in Cherry Hill, New Jersey's Courier-Post, including sections copied from President Bill Clinton and Supreme Court justices William Brennan and Potter Stewart (Osenenko 2003: n.p.). Harvard revoked admission because Hornstine's actions were viewed as "behavior that brings into question . . . honesty, maturity, or moral character" (Green and Russell 2003).1 Without a doubt, plagiarism continues to be fraught with concerns ethical and moral.

Now we must add technological. New technologies, such as the Internet, heralded simultaneously as promoting (e.g., see Kitalong 1998; DeVoss and Rosati 2002; Laird 2003) and thwarting (e.g., see Culwin and Lancaster 2000; Braumoeller and Gaines 2001) plagiarism, continue to keep concerns surrounding plagiarism in the forefront of the collective academic psyche. While plagiarism has arguably always been a function of technology—that [End Page 275] is, plagiarizers could plagiarize only in ways the available technologies permitted—these new technologies increase the visibility of plagiarism, allowing interested parties to quickly and easily trace documents to those using similar language. As a result, writing teachers are more aware of plagiarism. In other words, if plagiarism is easier to commit because of the Internet, it is also easier to catch because of the Internet. We in English studies must, therefore, now think about plagiarism in light of technology. Just as Lisa Gitelman (1999: 119) argues that the phonograph and associated recording technology troubled nineteenth-century "visual norms of intellectual property," so too do new media technologies trouble the existing standards of plagiarism and intellectual property that rely on visual evidence. Treatment of intellectual property and plagiarism, however, does not necessarily evolve with this changing technology. As Gitelman notes, typing and related nineteenth-century literacy practices facilitated by new technologies, such as the typewriter and phonograph, were characterized by "anxiety about visuality and textual evidence" (211). Typewriters were thought to make writing—and error, because typewriters did not initially allow for mistakes to be corrected—more visible. They substantiated the presence of error and their own status as writing machines through the text they produced, that is, what people could see (211). New-media technology is still surrounded by this anxiety—largely because our standards of evidence still depend on visual proof. Little seems to have changed.

Plagiarism detection services that rely on the Internet allow instructors to search for this visual proof, to test their students' papers to determine if they include language copied directly from other sources. As Rebecca Moore Howard (forthcoming: 5) explains, the "logic" of these services is "if unethical writers have access to text online and plagiarize from it, then gatekeeping teachers can also access the plagiarized text and catch the offenders." Undoubtedly, many different services exist for instructors to tailor to their individual needs. In his 2001 report for Britain's Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), Gill Chester (2003) identifies three types of plagiarism tested by detection services: cut and paste, paper mills, and collusion. Plagiarism detection services, in other words, can test if students copied text from Web sites, purchased papers from online paper mills, or copied text from other students. These services test for the first two types of plagiarism by comparing submitted papers against texts available via the Internet and test for the latter by comparing submitted papers against a database of student papers established by the instructor. Examples of the former services include EduTie,2 Essay Verification Engine (EVE2), and Turnitin. Examples of the [End Page 276] latter services include CopyCatch, Glatt, and WordCHECK. Some services, such as EVE2 and CopyCatch, download onto the user's computer, while...