Plagiarism Whack-A-Mole

When dealing with plagiarism, I focus on three pillars: Prevention, Detection and Cessation.

When those aspects are combined, the system does an excellent job of reducing the incidents of plagiarism, discovering the incidents that do take place and putting a stop to them. It’s a well-rounded system that tries not only to stop content theft, but also reduce the burden on the Webmaster trying to protect their work.

The system is not without criticisms though, some of them fair, some of them not. One of the more common ones is that it does little, if anything, to discourage repeat plagiarists. This could, theoretically, mean that the Webmaster never gains any ground in stopping plagiarism, and is instead just putting down the same plagiarist(s) over and over again.

This changes the image of the plagiarism battle from a war against a never-ending train of content thieves to a never-ending game a Whack-A-Mole, where a handful of plagiarists pop up over and over again with no end in site.

While, in some ways, the concern is legitimate, I don’t feel as if I’ve been playing plagiarism Whack-A-Mole and can explain why.

The Potential for Repeat Offenders

The Internet makes it easy to set up a site. There are countless services that offer free hosting for personal pages, profiles, blogs and everything in between. Setting up a new account is trivial and moving between services is a relative breeze.

Worse still, the Internet makes it easy to remain anonymous. Account information is, generally, private and can only be obtained with a court order. Journalists, artists and plagiarists alike hide behind pseudonyms and false identities.

In short, there’s little, if anything, to stop a plagiarist from simply closing up shop at one location and then moving to another, assuming a new identity and plagiarizing again.

However, in my experience, that rarely happens. For, while plagiarists aren’t well known for their work ethic, a lot of hard work goes into building a site, even if all or most of the content is stolen. Promotion, design, updating (including searching for new content to lift and posting it) and maintenance are all time-consuming tasks that even plagiarists have to do.

So, while it can be easy to move, it’s much harder to rebuild. Even if backups are available, investments in the address, profile name or the account itself discourage simply packing up and moving.

Relocation

This isn’t to say that repeat plagiarism doesn’t happen, it does. My very first plagiarism discovery turned out to be a repeat plagiarist and others have followed. However, it doesn’t happen nearly as often as some people think.

Out of my plagiarists, I’ve had only about a dozen repeats and two dozen more that I suspected of being repeat plagiarists that I couldn’t prove. Out of over 350 plagiarists, that means only a little over ten percent of plagiarists have been suspected of being repeats.

Granted, I’m only human when it comes to detecting duplicates and both my memory and intuition can fail me. However, I’ve discovered that recurring plagiarists repeat more than just their theft. They reuse photographs, layouts, profile information and even steal the same works over and over again.

Generally, it’s pretty easy to tell. The sense of déjà vu is overwhelming.

Repeat plagiarism seems to take place the most on social networking sites such as Myspace and Xanga. On these sites, both set up and network building are very quick. Where six months might be just enough time to get started on building traffic to a personal home page, it’s plenty of time to establish yourself with a Myspace profile.

While this could mean a rise in repeat plagiarism is on the horizon as the Web continues to move to social network sites instead of personal home pages and standalone blogs, it also means that plagiarists working to build popular sites on the back of other’s content will not likely repeat their actions once caught. There’s simply too much to lose.

Even plagiarists that do come back for seconds often don’t come back for thirds or fourths. Many of those who do repeat feel that the first time they were caught was a fluke and that it won’t happen again, when it does, they usually either walk away or move on to an easier target.

However, this isn’t to say that all plagiarists learn quickly from their mistakes. Some hard-headed plagiarists will continue to try their luck, seemingly without end, and plagiarists with a profit motivation will not stop so long as there is money to be made.

To that end, the splogger is probably the ultimate repeat plagiarist as they plagiarize thousands of blogs and spring back to life whenever they are shut down. With them, it’s not a game of Whack-A-Mole, but rather, a contest to weed a very large garden.

Dealing with Repeat Plagiarists

Dealing with a confirmed repeat plagiarist requires something more than just shutting down their latest site. Once a plagiarist has made three runs at the same content, it’s unlikely that they’re going to stop at four.

Handling such a plagiarist requires a bit of psychology, the ability to pause for a moment and try to figure out what it is they’re hoping to gain. Are they hoping to impress people? Make money? Gain influence? Or something else altogether?

Clearly, the plagiarist wants something enough to put forth effort in creating accounts over and over again knowing full and well the risks involved. Simply shutting them down again isn’t going to do much more than delay the problem.

However, there are several steps that you can take to avoid repeat plagiarism and to deal with it when it happens.

  • Deal with plagiarism quickly: Using Google Alerts to get instant notifications and dealing with them as soon as possible will reduce the benefit plagiarists receive, thus reducing the likelihood someone will go for a repeat performance.
  • Contact the Advertisers: Letting their advertising service know about the theft is a good step in many cases of plagiarism, repeat or not, but is an absolute must in cases of repeat plagiarism where the copycat has a profit motive.
  • Inform the Host: I believe in second chances, that’s why I try to contact the plagiarist directly first. At this point though, it’s not a time for cease and desist letters, but to contact the host directly. If the different acts of plagiarism have been on the same site, inform them that the person is a repeat infringer and provide any evidence you have. Hosts, generally, can take extra steps to prevent yet another incident.
  • Contact Others Involved: While shaming someone in a forum or on a social networking site is a risky move that can draw the ire of a community at you, not the plagiarist, some elements of shame can be effective. If the repeated plagiarism is aimed at one particular person or group, notifying them of what is going on may be in order. However, this is something that should be done in private as much as possible and with a great deal of tact. Remember, it is not their fault and you have no reason to insert drama into their lives.
  • Enlist the Help of Others: If there is someone that’s close to the plagiarism, such as a friendly admin or a user of the site, try to enlist their help. They’ll likely be able to inform you about the plagiarism before search engines can, enabling you to shut it down even faster.

Conclusions

Repeat plagiarism, though relatively rare among non-automated plagiarists despite the fact the Web is known for giving people the ability to hide and move with ease, is definitely worth extra attention and precaution.

Beyond the steps listed above, one should also consider starting a database if they deal with a large number of plagiarists. This will help stop, though not necessarily prevent, repeat plagiarists from being mistaken as new.

In the end, though it can feel like a never-ending battle against the same handful of plagiarists, with an effective system you can drastically reduce repeat plagiarism and focus your energies on stopping the new ones that crop up.

[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, Copyright Infringement, Copyright Law, Myspace, Xanga, Splogs, Splogging[/tags]

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