How the Internet Changed Plagiarism

The most common question I get asked some days...

Internet ImagePlagiarism, the act of taking credit for the creations of others, has likely been around as long as there has been art and language. Though the word was “plagius” was first used around 80 CE by the poet Martial, the act itself was around much, much longer.

But, as with just about everything, technology has drastically changed plagiarism. The impact has been widespread and has completely altered the nature of plagiarism, changing why, how and when people choose to plagiarize.

However, it’s also changed the way we fight plagiarism. The same as technology has granted plagiarists tools to better hone their “craft”, those who work against it also have better tools to detect, call out and, in some cases, prevent plagiarism before it happens.

That’s because technology’s role with plagiarism is deep and complex and that makes it tough to predict where things will change in the future.

Still, looking at the impact of the Internet on plagiarism can give us some great insights into the modern plagiarist, who they are and how we can fight them.

Note: For this post we’ll be looking almost exclusively at text plagiarism, not idea, image or other types of plagiarism, even though some of the points work well with them.

The Three Parts of Plagiarism

Color CopiesBefore we delve too deeply into how technology has changed plagiarism, we first have to look at its three parts. In short, every act of plagiarism requires three steps:

  1. Locating Material: The plagiarist has to find the content that they want to plagiarize.
  2. Copying: The plagiarist then must copy the work that they intend to take credit for.
  3. Present it to an Audience: Finally, they must take the work that they’ve copied and present it to an audience while taking credit for it.

Of course, there’s often a fourth step: Detecting the plagiarism.  However, since many plagiarists are never caught, these are the only steps required for a complete act of plagiarism.

But when you look at these three parts, it’s easy to see how technology drastically changed them even before the Internet.

For example, in the time Martial, though literacy was fairly high, there was no printing press and the most common way for poetry to be shared was through oral performances. So, plagiarist poets would either read or hear the work, learn it (making the copy in their mind) and then present it to another audience orally.

This was actually very common in Roman times and was widely accepted. If anything, Martial was unique for speaking out against it, even if his concerns were more commercial than ethical in nature.

Fast forward to 1918 and World War 1, we saw a case where the International News Service (INS), barred from using telegraph lines at the front lines, grabbed Associated Press (AP) bulletins to publish as their own without attribution. That plagiarism became a lawsuit, which then led to the controversial “Hot News” ruling that gave limited copyright protection to news reporting.

So, even before the Internet, we went from plagiarists copying poems via memory and reciting them to different audiences to wire services capturing competitors reports and republishing them same day in competing newspapers.

However, as big of a change as that was, plagiarism had not seen anything yet.

The Impact of the Internet

Lazy Man ImageWhat the Internet did was fundamentally make every aspect of plagiarism easier. While these were unintentional side effects of making legitimate research and publishing easier, the impact they had on plagiarism were great.

First, the Internet made it easier than ever to find work to plagiarize. Need an essay for a class? It’s trivial to punch the topic into a search engine. Want to fill your dating profile with poetry? It’s easy to pop on some poetry sites and find work to copy.

The Internet eliminated the need to look through stacks of books to find the right work or passage. Now, almost anything you could want is just a simple search away.

Though the Internet really didn’t make the act of copying the work directly easier, that is owed to the invention of copy and paste by Larry Tesler  in the 1970s, by making works easier to find and putting the in an accessible format, it made them easier to copy.

Finally, even though a great deal of plagiarism remains academic in nature, the Internet has given anyone who wants it a voice online. Instead of needing a printing press or an audience for a poetry recital, anyone can set up a site and publish their works, or, in the case of a plagiarist, someone else’s.

In short, every step of the plagiarism process is easier thanks to the Internet and that has changed how and why people plagiarize.

The Changing Face of Plagiarism

Before the Internet (and especially before computers), plagiarism still required a great deal of hard work and expertise. One had to know how to find the work they wanted to steal, make the copy of it (either by memory of by hand) and then find an audience to present it to.

For most of history, plagiarism was typically done out of necessity or because of social norms that made it acceptable. INS didn’t plagiarize the AP’s reporting because they didn’t have the resources or desire to draft original reporting, they did it because they were shut out providing such reporting and felt they couldn’t give attribution to their arch rival.

Before the Internet, most plagiarism (at least when looking at text) was not significantly easier than creating an original work that correctly attributed its source material. This is why many plagiarism cases before computing centered around ideas and stories rather than words.

Scientists often stole discoveries and authors often stole plots and ideas, but verbatim plagiarism, while it still happened, was much less common previously than it is today.

But the Internet made textual plagiarism more of a shortcut. It’s simply faster and easier to copy someone else’s words and present them as your own than it is to write something original. This post, for example, will take me several hours to write but it can be copied and republished in seconds.

Not only did this make plagiarism more common, as making something easier always does, but it changed why people plagiarize. No longer just an act of necessity, it’s no (more often at least) an act of laziness or a product of poor time management.

It also raised the rate of accidental plagiarism. With copying and pasting becoming so common and confusion over attribution standards, accidental plagiarism is more common than ever both online and in academia.

All in all, the Internet took an unethical act that was deliberate and calculated and made it a routine shortcut for the lazy and even an accidental pitfall of the inept. While that made text plagiarism much more common, it greatly shifted the demographics of who was most likely to do it.

A Word on Plagiarism Detection

turnitin-feedback-studio-logo-stacked-rgbThe same as the Internet changed plagiarism, it also greatly shifted the landscape for those that seek to combat it.

The one thing that’s true of nearly all plagiarism checkers is that they would not work without the Internet. Though text fingerprinting, string matching and other techniques for spotting text plagiarism predate the Internet, without the large database of content the web provides, there would be nothing for these tools to match against.

And that is the nature of the Internet when it comes to plagiarism. It’s a very sharp double-edged sword. On one hand, it made plagiarism so easy that it’s now the domain for the lazy and even the accident-prone just as much as it is for the nefarious. On the other, it’s made plagiarism much easier to detect, reducing the expertise and luck needed to spot it a thousand fold.

So while the Internet has ushered in a new age of plagiarism, it’s also ushered in a golden age of plagiarism awareness. This awareness not only allows us to battle back against the current plagiarism problem, but to better understand the copying and plagiarism that took place before the Web.

After all, when we’re regularly exposing dissertation plagiarism from the 80s and 90s, we can find out almost any truth we want.

Bottom Line

In the end, the Internet revolutionized nearly all aspects of our life, it’s no surprise that it would also revolutionize plagiarism.

But as with every revolution, there is a counterrevolution and just as the Internet made it simple to plagiarize, it also bore the tools to spot it.

The Internet changed who plagiarizes along with how and why they do it. However, it also changed who detects the plagiarism, including why and how they do it.

Thanks to the Internet, plagiarism is a lot different than it was just 30 years ago. But, as the web evolves, so will plagiarism both online and off, making this a field still very much in flux and an area well worth watching.

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