Friday, February 25, 2011

Where is my Sneakoscope When I Need It?

In Harry Potter, there is a dark detector called a sneakoscope.  It alerts one to the presence of sneaky activity.  However, it does not work so well at Hogwarts because there is so much sneaking going on.  Alas, it would be handy to have such a device when grading, as we profs are not (dare I say it?) omniscient when it comes to cheating.

Specifically, we may not find plagiarism in our students' work.  Focusing on grad students, thanks to the recent stories about the German Defense Minister and Qaddafi's boy genius,* there has been much condemnation of their advisers.

*  On the other hand, the stories of social scientists praising Qaddafi make me ill.  I used to think a great deal of Anthony Giddens but no more.

Knowing nothing of the cases themselves since I have other things to do than read their dissertations (my students provide enough dissertation chapters for me to read, thank you), I will say this: it is not always apparent that something is taken from some place else.  Unless a phrase or an idea jumps out, the focus is not on detecting cheating but evaluating the quality of the ideas, the execution of the project, and how to improve it.  Of course, the Qaddafi case is a bit, ahem, different, since heaps of money seems to have flowed to the London School of Economics from the Qaddafi family, which implicates everyone in England but not the UK.

Sure, I have had cases of undergrad plagiarism jump out and scream.  But at McGill, I have not detected any cases of graduate plagiarism.  Does that mean that none has happened?  I don't know, as I don't whip out the google search to test every sentence or paragraph.  Indeed, the basic approach is one of trust, where I expect my students not to cheat, and I do not spend my time engaged in "CONSTANT VIGILANCE!"  However, if one of my students becomes a senior government official and then is found guilty of plagiarism, then I will feel bad.

So, we need to consider that the advisers here might have done their job.  One of them says that the oral defense of Qaddafi went on for two hours and he seemed to have done the research.  Of course, that is just one test, and as I know from personal experience (a plagiarist had asked me all semester long about his/her ideas and how best to combine them, but was really talking about three or four papers and how best to combine them), conversations, even oral defenses, are not the best means for figuring this stuff out.  The proof is in the writing and the reading.  Time pressures, other priorities, and, indeed, trust, point towards accepting the writing at face value.

This does not mean we should excuse the folks who supervised Qadaffi, especially as the inflow of money would already raise suspicions.  But I do think we need to take a breath before pointing the finger of blame at anyone besides the plagiarist until we know more.

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