Errata Project - Detecting Plagiarism

Sun Nov 6 02:02:41 CST 2011

Plagiarism With the recent rash of plagiarism exposure, one of the most frequent questions we get is "how do you find plagiarism?" Our methodology is home-grown and very simple. We assume that we are only catching some of it, and that our methodology causes us to miss some cases. Rather than read our layman views on the matter, we encourage you to read the NYU Ethics Handbook written by Professor Adam Penenberg. The entire handbook is worth reading, but you can jump to section 9, "Cardinal Sins", to read about plagiarism.

Before we get into the "how", we want to address a second question and concern; what is plagiarism and how can I avoid it?

Plagiarism, Infringement and Copyright

First, we must clarify that a lot of our work uncovers copyright violation, not plagiarism. There is a big difference between the two, while both are unethical and unacceptable in academic and professional circles. Using Wikipedia, there are four important definitions and concepts to understand before discussion on the topic:

What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism is defined in dictionaries as the "wrongful appropriation," "close imitation," or "purloining and publication" of another author's "language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions," and the representation of them as one's own original work...

What is copyright?
A copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted by a state to the creator of an original work or their assignee for a limited period of time upon disclosure of the work. This includes the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work.

What is copyright infringement?
Copyright infringement is the unauthorized or prohibited use of works under copyright, infringing the copyright holder's exclusive rights, such as the right to reproduce or perform the copyrighted work, or to make derivative works.

What is 'fair use'?
In United States copyright law, fair use is a doctrine that permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders. Examples of fair use include commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship.

In layman's terms, the difference betwee plagiarism and copyright violation is that a person who plagiarizes will typically make small edits to the original text or clip pieces from multiple sources to form a new work, without contributing their own original thoughts or material. A person who takes a large block of text, reprints it in full, and does not take measures to change the text is likely violating copyright. The easiest way to avoid issues like plagiarism and copyright infringement is to cite your sources. Even if the material is your own, citing the source(s) that influenced your work is a good practice and gives your audience insight into your background as well as additional material if they are interested in the topic. If the positive aspect of citing sources doesn't appeal to you, let us appeal to the negative; detecting plagiarism and copyright infringement is pretty simple. If someone bothers to check, they will find it if it is there.

How We Find the "Bad Stuff" (tm)

The methodology that we have developed is home grown and evolved through repetition. Over time, there are several tips and tricks we have picked up that help to more easily identify plagiarism. In summary, we use basic Google searches for blocks or groups of text, and compare the results to the text being reviewed. Yes, it is rather slow and repetitive, but ultimately very effective. We do not use commercial services such as iThenticate for several reasons, both technical and financial.

The following list is in no particular order, and contains the basics, tricks, and hurdles in detecting plagiarism.


As you can see, it isn't rocket science. Our method requires being meticulous and persistent, with a healthy dose of booze to maintain sanity. As always, we encourage you to check books and articles for plagiarism. It typically takes a couple minutes to find evidence of it. With that, mail us the details and we can help out if you are pressed for time.

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