Essay Tips #8: Know your Enemy, the plagiarism detector

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Welcome back to our series on the top 10 tips for college essay writing. We’ve covered a lot of ground, including choosing a citation manager, doing research, finding sources, writing sprints, and more. Today’s topic is a little different. Today’s topic is the dreaded plagiarism checker, the awful TurnItIn or SafeAssign or whatever other dumb program that has been imposed on you by your professor (and, doubtless, has been imposed on them by a parasitical university administrator whose only purpose in life is making sure your tuition is absurdly high). Why are faceless, for-profit software programs embedded with the power to literally decide your academic career? Well, we have no answer for that right now, but let’s talk about what these misleading programs do and do not do.  

Plagiarism detectors work by comparing your text to a database of other texts. They suck and are impersonal. There is a lot of mystery surrounding the profit-based detectors like Turn-It-In, and a lack of clarity about what happens to students’ IP, meaning YOUR intellectual property, once it is in their nefarious clutches.

Essay writing is stressful, but the fear of being accused of plagiarism kicks it into a whole ‘nother level. When you’re trying to write an essay, pouring your heart and soul into a topic you care about after hunting down esoteric sources, the last thing you want to worry about is whether your work is going to get flagged for plagiarism. Supposedly, plagiarism detectors can help you , and the college administrators whose yachts you are paying for with your tuition, rest assured that your work is original. But these plagiarism detectors are far from perfect. In fact, they suck. They’re impersonal, often inaccurate, and many of the big companies are silent about what they do with your hard work once they add it to their databases to continue making a profit. But don’t hate the program, hate the game: They only do what they are programmed to do. 

Plagiarism detectors work by flagging strings of text that are similar or identical

They work based on the assumption that it is vanishingly unlikely that any two people would come up with the same strings of five or six words on their own (with the exceptions of some common grammatical phrases). Of course, this means that things like in-text and bibliographic citations tend to get flagged. Those long, annoying names of laws that are actually acronyms? Yep, use one of those and The System thinks you’re a plagiarist. As a result, students are forced to waste time defending themselves against false accusations of plagiarism, rather than actually learning anything useful. These programs work by considering you guilty until you are proven innocent. In short, plagiarism detectors are hammers in a world where text assessment needs surgical lasers. That’s because….

If the detector finds a match, it will flag the text as plagiarized. Period. 

It does not matter if the match is nonsensical, like a bibliography, a rock band with a particularly long name, or the name of a law. Most professors have the ability set these detectors to ignore bibliographies, but many do not. Many professors assess flagged content manually, but many others do not. Yet ironically, the detectors only look for identical or near-strings. They do not weigh semantic similarities like arguments or content that is distinctly rephrased. And I have seen these detectors flag equations, block quotes, chemical formulae, the names of classes and schools from title pages, tables of contents, book titles, and so much more.

The dystopian world of plagiarism detectors is a confusing and dangerous place. On the one hand, you have a match detector that can flag anything that remotely resembles something else as plagiarized. On the other hand, you have professors who either don’t know how to use the detector properly, or who have to follow absurd rules from idiot administrators, or who just plain don’t care (Can you blame them?). And to top it all off, the detectors are only looking for identical or near-identical strings, so they can’t even tell if you’re plagiarizing arguments or ideas. It’s a real mess. If you’re ever accused of plagiarism, just remember that it’s not always clear what counts as plagiarism and what doesn’t. You might be safe… or you might not. It all depends on the specific policies of your professor, course, and their department, school, and maybe if Mercury is in retrograde. The best defense is a good offense, and the best offense is to not plagiarize, and so maybe you think it’d be great to check it yourself, using one of those checkers that won’t get your essay added to the Dreaded Database – since some plagiarism checkers would then mark the entire paper as plagiarized. But…

There are a number of different plagiarism detectors available online, but most of them are even worse than the one your school uses. 

The “good” ones just want to fleece you for more money, and the bad ones might even steal your content. Most of the free online plagiarism checkers are even worse than the one your school uses.  What’s a student to do? “Don’t plagiarize” is not always an answer if you are new to writing or unsure about how to attribute – or caught up in the digital jaws of a program that’s decided you plagiarized. 

The best solution is probably to just avoid using any of these services altogether. And avoid plagiarizing. Maybe just avoid going to school in the first place. Just live in a cave. Yeah…

It’s extremely unfair that education has become this adversarial. Most professors hate this just as much as you do. Unfortunately, there is not much anyone can do.

The system is set up so that professors have to be tough on students in order to adhere to policies set by other people. And some people ruin it for everybody else by devoting all their creative and intellectual energy to finding new and more ridiculous ways to cheat. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s one that often ends with the student feeling like they’re going into debt to be criminalized by the people who are supposed to be teaching them. But it doesn’t have to be this way! 

Plagiarism detectors are like the TSA of college. 

They’re invasive, they’re everywhere, and they make you feel like a criminal. And they follow dumb, arbitrary rules that do not really protect anybody. When the whole academic system seems like it’s designed to put you in mountains of debt and treat you like a criminal, it can be very difficult to stay motivated.

It’s no secret that the higher education system is in need of reform. Student debt is at an all-time high, and the job market is increasingly competitive. In such a hostile environment, it can be difficult to stay on the straight and narrow path. After all, what’s the point of putting yourself through all the stress and expense of college if there’s no guarantee of a good job at the end? It’s hard enough to stay motivated when you’re shelling out thousands of dollars for tuition; when you’re also being treated like a cheater the whole time, it’s even harder. Add in the high stakes of school and grades and you have a good old-fashioned self-fulfilling prophecy. The sad fact is that, for many students, the deck is stacked against them from the start. Until the higher education system is reformed, it will be difficult for students to thrive.

The plagiarism detector is your enemy. It’s a ruthless, unforgiving machine that will find any similarities in your text and flag it as plagiarized. Unfortunately, most of the free detectors available online are not very good – they’re often shady and inaccurate. However, the best way to avoid getting caught plagiarizing is to always cite your sources. The whole system sucks. What can you do? Work with a friend or tutor to make sure your work is 100% original and citation-free. Have someone look over your sources and you’re writing to be sure your citations are impeccable and unmistakable.