Who Are the Plagiarism Police?

I teach college freshman how to write essays.  When I started doing this a few years ago, I wasn’t a big fan of Turnitin.com. I hadn’t liked it as a grad student, but that was because, as far as one of my professors was concerned, its word was law.  I learned how to use it, though, following a semester-long battle with plagiarism. I ended up catching most of the offenders with simple Google searches, but it took time.  When I did decide to make use of the Turnitin subscription that our school has, it caught most of the same stuff and it did it a lot faster than I did. I was sold.


When it was revealed last week that Q.R. Markham had lifted material from at least 12 different sources and constructed a novel from it, I was reminded of my students.  The ones that I caught that first semester had done something similar, picking sentences (or even whole paragraphs) from multiple websites and weaving them into their lazy attempts at coherent essays.  The fact that Markham’s book actually made it to the shelves is proof that he did a pretty decent job on that front. I spent most of the week wondering if he would come out and say that it took skill to do what he did (that’s the line that one of my students tried), but, to his credit, he’s staying pretty quiet.

After following along as Edward Champion identified at least a dozen specific examples of plagiarized material in the first 35 pages of text, I found myself wondering how he had the patience to go through all of that. Then I wondered why someone hadn’t gone through it before. What do people in the publishing world do to make sure that what they are publishing is original? It seems that there is an honor system in place, and that that, unless it’s a book on science, is all.  But is the honor system enough?

There is a “professional” version of Turnitin.com called “iThenticate,” and two major publishers do make use of it as a tool to check their nonfiction texts (presumably) for originality and proper attribution. The primary argument against such a program for use with works of fiction is that there is just too much out there. Creating a searchable database would take too long.  In the age of the ebook and sites like Project Guttenberg, however, there is already a sizeable digital library. It just needs to be put in one place.  Publishers could add new manuscripts as they were acquired, and the database would continue to grow from there.  Obviously, it would have to be an industry-only tool, and full manuscripts would have to protected from the competition.  Even on Turnitin, I can’t see another student’s paper without first requesting access from his/her professor.

Ideally, there would never be a need for a tool like this.  Writers would be honorable and they would only submit work that was one-hundred percent original. As Markham’s example has shown us, however, that is not always the case. Plagiarism checking software may be the easiest way to avoid a mistake as costly as publishing Markham’s novel is proving to be.

What are your thoughts?  Is this an avenue that publishers should investigate?

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