For the most part, plagiarism seems to be a do-it-yourself task. Whether you’re copying and pasting by hand, using an article spinner or scraping an RSS feed, there’s no reason one person can’t do the work for themselves.
But that being said, there’s always been a business around plagiarism. Whether the plagiarist is too lazy or simply wants higher-quality work, there’s always been at least a few who have been willing to pay money to have someone else do their dirty work.
However, with the Internet making plagiarism easier than ever, it would seem likely that this form of plagiarism would be on the way out. After all, why pay for what you can do trivially in a few seconds?
Unfortunately for the plagiarists, that hasn’t exactly worked out. While the Web made plagiarism easier to do, it also made it much easier to detect. With new automated tools to track duplicated content, both in and out of the classroom, plagiarists are finding it harder and harder to get away with plagiarism, at least without creating content that is almost unreadable.
This has lead to a rebirth and reinvention of plagiarism-for-hire. Sadly, it’s a problem that’s growing very rapidly and is poised to be a major issue for content creators and instructors alike.
Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap
Plagiarism for hire existed long before there was a Web. In most schools there were some students who, for a price, would either sell existing essays or write new ones for students. Likewise, essay mills were around well before the Internet as mail order businesses and many colleges are rife with stories of term paper filing cabinets in frat houses and sororities just for the purpose of coordinated plagiarism.
However, as the Web made both plagiarism and research easier, these services seemed unnecessary. That is, until plagiarism detection tools such as Turnitin made it much more difficult to get away with plagiarism while having a cohesive, well-written product.
The result of this is that plagiarists have started going back to the old solutions in droves. However, rather than using the guy down the hall or an essay mill found in the back of a magazine, plagiarists have more options than ever for hiring someone to help them.
Consider the following:
- Online Essay Mills: The old essay mills were slow, expensive gambles. With ecommerce, students can choose from dozens of essay mill sites, which in turn can outsource the work to anyone in the world. This saves both money and time, making essay mills both cheaper and more efficient.
- Freelancer Sites: As the recent Freelancer.com debacle showed, as well as the site’s own views about plagiarism on its service, students can and do turn to modern freelancing sites to find willing plagiarism help at a reduced rate.
- Micro-Freelancing (Mechanical Turk): Widely used by plagiarists trying circumvent automated protections against scraping or copying, Mechanical Turk (and similar systems) are also used to rewrite content and produce human-readable spun content.
- Community Forums: Both buyers and sellers of plagiarized content have found a home on sites like Craigslist, where they can freely advertise their needs/services without much fear of reprisal.
- Social Networking: Social networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter, etc. have become a boon not just for free cheating, but also for paid cheating. In a recent survey, Turnitin found that over a third of all copied content found in academic papers came from social networing and sharing sites.
What all of this adds up is a simple fact: It’s easier and cheaper than ever to hire someone to help you plagiarize and, as content detection gets better, more and more people are going to do just that.
The Legitimizing of the Plagiarism Business
One thing that leaps with these changes is that, of the five places where people routinely go to buy plagiarism, only one is seen as “seedy” and most are places primarily used for legitimate commerce. On sites such as Craigslist and Freelancer.com, you can likely find plagiarism-for-hire contracts right next to legitimate writing jobs.
While this means that such plagiarism is being pushed more out into the light (making it easier to track), it also means that there is likely growing social acceptance of it. As people get used to seeing these offers in places where legitimate commerce takes place, it may be seen as more and more acceptable itself.
In the meantime, the more immediate problem is simple. The anti-plagiarism tools we have are great for detecting automated abuses of content, but not for-hire plagiarism.
Automated or quick plagiarism such as verbatim copying, scraping or even, in most cases, article spinning, technology can detect and even stop the plagiarism. However, an automated tool can’t distinguish between an original paper written by an essay mill vs. one written by a student. Likewise, anti-scraping tools can’t distinguish between a person visiting the site to copy text and a human coming by to merely read it.
In short, these trends are going to pose new challenges for educators, webmasters and content creators of all stripes.
And the trend has just begun.
Countering the Business
Fortunately for educators, they already have a lot of tools that can mitigate against this kind of plagiarism. This includes crafting more specific assignments, including in-class portions, requiring to see various drafts and simply talking with students about their assignments. Plagiarizing a paper does not give you the knowledge from it and teachers can continue to exploit that.
However, other content creators have it much more difficult. An original work is an original work to a client, to Google or to an audience. They don’t know, can’t know and don’t care to know how much the person behind the screen really knows.
Simply put, content creators are going to have to get more serious about tracking and understanding how their work is being used online (legally and illegally) and focus on improving the metrics that search engines do care about, such as freshness of content and inbound links.
After all, the biggest advantage content creators have over human plagiarism is time. Where automated content theft can happen almost instantly, there’s going to be a noticeable delay when a human becomes involved. Creators can use that to build links, trust and keep pumping out new works.
In many circles, the anti-plagiarists have gotten lazy, very lazy. The ease of use of automated tools have given them a great deal of power with little effort. However, that ride is nearing an end.
Though such tools will remain a crucial part of fighting plagiarism, they won’t be the only tools that can be used. As the marketplace for plagiarism grows, so must the tools and resources academics and content creators use to fight it.
Without that, there will be a tremendous blindspot when dealing with plagiarism and it is only going to grow over the next few years.