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Advice, Plagiarism

You’ve Just Been Synonym’d

Imagine that one of your students submits an essay that begins like this:

By means of the clack of a mouse, any person can right of entry an hard to believe affluence of in sequence on topics ranging from aardvarks to zygotes. We employ desktops, laptops, palmtops, and cellular telephones to attach through telephone appearance, wire relations, and wireless ports. The Internet is at this time. It has completed our lives better-off and easier; it has misshapen limits and prolonged horizons.

What might you think? At first, as an instructor, you might struggle to find meaning. You might be worried about the student’s ability to write in a coherent manner, but may be inclined to give the student the benefit of the doubt. The rest of the essay is worded similarly, which causes concern, but you have seen a struggling writer before. You make careful, constructive comments, grade the paper, and move on.

Guess what? You just got synonym’d (trademark pending). This paragraph was copied from a free essay service called 123helpme.com. However, it did not appear on the website in these words. Instead, I pasted it into my Word document and found synonyms for every word that I could. This paragraph was the result. While SafeAssign did register one sentence as plagiarized due to the impossibility of finding synonyms for words such as “desktops,” the rest of the sentences were not recognized.

I was recently presented with this situation as I was grading papers. The paper had a significantly high percentage of reported plagiarism on SafeAssign, but I felt obliged to look over the entire paper to determine if any of the paper was original. Only a thorough examination of the student’s essay as well as the original essay made me recognize that the student’s entire essay was plagiarized. Looking back, I probably should have realized that the words were not really my student’s, but I wanted to give him/her the benefit of the doubt and I thought that s/he was really struggling to find the words to argue his/her point. Instead, I discovered that s/he was playing me for a fool. While I have learned to take these sorts of violations less personally, I was still frustrated with the student and my own gullibility.

In my particular case, the student obviously synonym’d quickly, not even bothering to alter the last half of the paper. I was only able to catch the plagiarism via SafeAssign because of the student’s apparent lack of attention to detail. However, not all students might translate an entire essay so hastily. With a deeper understanding of how synonyms work, a student might be able to produce a decent (but still plagiarized) essay that does not so closely match the original and therefore pass the scrutiny of SafeAssign.

It is this thought that seems to be even more frightening than the paragraph I invented above. How exactly are we supposed to know when a student is plagiarizing if they have become so diabolical about it? Students have evaded doing actual work since the beginning of time, or so I am told, so this isn’t surprising, but disturbing nonetheless. For every innovation meant to prevent students from cheating, there is a creative way for students to circumvent it. The only advice I can offer is to trust your teacherly instincts and watch out for this strange and acrobatic form of plagiarism. Otherwise, you might get synonym’d.

Alisa Allkins is a PhD candidate in Literary & Cultural Studies who is currently teaching ENG 1020 and tutoring in the Writing Center.



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