Plagiarism as an Art Form

Have you in the last year or so looked for free essays to plagiarise? Have you adapted what seemed to be attractive material into your essay or dissertation without properly checking or referencing it? Then you may have come across one of these books:

Most of them are free to download. All of them are are billed as books that can be applied to a range of arts, humanities and social sciences subjects. They contain arguments and references that are typical of standard academic textbooks. They’re purportedly the work of an overlooked theorist. Her theories are explained in long introductions by the translator. This is helpful because her writing is, like so much theory, difficult. This, in turn, is unsurprising, because the reason for this difficulty is that her work is computer-generated. Peer-reviewed books and journal articles were cut into new text by my artificial intelligence code and then edited by myself. The books sound right; however, they’re somewhat wonky.

One characteristic of the source material was helpful. I exploited a tendency in academic writing that is sometimes referred to as ‘metatwaddle’. Metatwaddle is a shorthand for wordy prose that sounds impressive but leaves you mystified as to its meaning.

Any experienced reader, presumably, would never get taken in by computer-generated pseudo-theory, and would hit the Back button immediately. However, anyone who doesn’t read – which shouldn’t be the case for students – could be swayed by anything that looks the part. I have limited stats – the theory books are now available from sources all over the web – but the downloads peak as the deadline panic sets in at the end of terms and semesters.

Plagiarism – passing off somebody else’s work as your own, whether by paraphrasing it or simply copying and pasting it wholesale – is becoming a major problem for colleges and universities. At the beginning of 2016, The Times of London published its investigation into 129 universities. Mobile phones are one of the new threats to exams. Copying or adapting material (such as that in my books) is declining as anti-plagiarism software gets better. However, essay mills, websites where you can buy customised essays, are on the rise.

TimesArticleSmaller.jpg

Attracting plagiarists and anyone looking to quote something without checking or attributing it was a motivation for me. However, it was the fun to making my forgeries that made me continue. It didn’t come from nowhere either. I’d previously published a small collection of computer-generated stories. This book sold, and still does. What if, I wondered, I simulated ‘theory’? What if I framed it with a translator’s introduction? Would anyone go beyond a preview?

Well, they did. And once I’d started, the ruse was hard to stop. In a strange form of Stockholm Syndrome, I began to admire plagiarism for its artfulness and skill. I even had my theorist’s translator question the relevance of essays. There was ample opportunity to raise mischievous points that didn’t have to reflect my own views – playing the Devil’s Advocate by proxy, as it were. The temptation was always to add another layer to the author’s oeuvre and biography. The possibilities to simulating artworks to illustrate these led to the Essays on Modern Art series. And in the end, those possibilities vastly outweighed the time available for them. I work full-time, so each book was a colossal undertaking, especially when writing the straight, lengthy, and sometimes preposterous introductions.

Paraphrasing

A plagiarising technique – paraphrasing without attribution – was used in the introductions.

The finished project – 5 e-books in all – only scratches the surface. The relationship between plagiarism and technology is even more sprawling and complex than my unrealised ideas. Just describing it is beyond anything I can say in a blog post. The many articles I collected while developing the ruse attest to surprising and multiple dimensions. There’s the (mostly secret) struggle academic staff have in getting students to read. There’s the revolutionary politics that underlies a lot of opaque writing in the academy. There’s the growing use of artificial intelligence in papers submitted for conferences, and, absurdly, in detecting them (and, most startlingly of all, in the sciences more than anywhere).

Quite how technology is transforming education is a story being written today. Anyone about to start or resume study will soon be tomorrow’s authors. Or will they?


Credits

Many thanks to Ste J for volunteering to write a review of the first book. He’s a non-graduate who’s better read than most of the undergrads I’ve met. Thanks go to Eric for arguing at length in my review as well as being one of several people whose discussions were very helpful in developing the ideas for this elaborate ruse. Eric’s piece on Robert Ryman was highly influential in starting the Essays on Modern Art series. Thanks are also due to Alexei for offering detailed comments on several introductory chapters right at the point where I’d lost the plot. And Sarah at Hard Book Habit provided feedback in the early days that really helped me to gauge what might persuade and what might smell fishy. Thanks most of all to the above and several other people for keeping shtum for this 18 months.

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16 Responses to Plagiarism as an Art Form

  1. ksfinblog says:

    Personally I am sort of mystified by the whole Western fascination to originality when they are flawed even in their basics. What exactly is difference between inspiration and paraphrasing?👋

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    • Jeff says:

      I used paraphrasing in the introductions without attributions: it was a cheeky way to use plagiarism in order to help convince plagiarists that the books were original. Maybe that’s an original way to use unoriginal material. I don’t know if that makes originality flawed. It’s certainly fascinating though.

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  2. ksfinblog says:

    What exactly is the purpose of attribution except inelegantly bloating the text and satisfying the ego of people involved in the field earlier than one researcher. Is anyone allowed to interpret the data presented in a different way than the original writer or we are doomed to carry the errors and biases involved to infinity 😢

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    • Jeff says:

      A1: The purpose of attribution in coursework is to show whose work warrants the credit of the marks.
      A2: Yes. Day one stuff for undergrads. Being critical means weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of arguments.

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      • ksfinblog says:

        These answers are what I expected from an career academic ….. I look at the world from the viewpoint of someone who compares the rising and decline of companies, empires and civilizations; Look at the geniuses and giants of the world and you will find that those very same undergraduate students struggling to find jobs while those that don’t become human calculators are happier and better situated.👏🎊

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  3. Pingback: Plagiarism as an Art Form | Book to the Future

  4. Ste J says:

    Apologies for not getting back to you sooner. I never got the link and then ended up wandering off for a few days and being generally rubbish at life, which I now have down to a tee, which is good news, if you like a positive.

    It was an interesting exercise, I enjoyed the MetaTwaddle editing, it looks like a lot of fun. I wonder if you will get any feedback from this from anybody in the education world, it would be nice as you went to the trouble of highlighting a problem more prevalent than ever before.

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    • Jeff says:

      Putting life first is a good idea.
      In my experience, the discussion in academia about ‘metatwaddle’ (a term from Dawkins, of course) pulls rank. The orthodoxy tends to be that attacks on opaque writing, or shall we say obfuscation (a wonderfully descriptive word that does what it says on the tin), can only come from conservatives who are part of the capitalist status quo.
      Unless by ‘problem’ you mean the plagiarism? I think that’s recognised as a problem, but little is said about it in the research community. It’s a pity. Clearly the rise of essay mills (see the Times article) subverts the social mobility credentials of higher education. Rich students who don’t need to read pay for essays written by poor students who do need to read. The former pay handsomely, the latter get paid a pittance, and middlemen in between get rich. Perhaps, and I say this waggishly, some richer students should invest money into essay mills. Perhaps, and I say this waggishly also, it’s against the interests, in this respect, for the academic elites to intervene too much?
      It’s interesting: one of the tropes I repeated in the books was the heroic revolutionary image that so many academics frame themselves with.
      Thanks so much for the reblog. It’s great to see unexpected things commented on already.

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  5. Ste J says:

    Getting away from a screen was always good and had I not popped onto my notifications I would have been publishing another Hitchens book review.

    Which is pretty apt as he would have been all over this I am sure. Problem did have a two fold meaning, apologies for not being clear but it pretty much worked out for the best. I am sure were there shares to be had in such companies then they probably would put it into the ‘education fund’. It is interesting how the wag frequently hits out with incisiveness.

    Isn’t it an unwritten rule that all academics flirted with communism or militant socialism, or at least mention syndicalism if they fancy themselves a bit Bertrand Russell or some such writer as that.

    I’m always happy to show my support and help facilitate a dialogue. I’m glad to know I have been reading in the right areas as well, plenty more to come in that area, as ever my boundaries are stretching ever wider.

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    • Jeff says:

      There are more right-leaning academics. They often describe academia as having been taken over by the left, a sort of refuge for scoundrels / reds under the bed line. Rather like the conspiracy theories about the BBC being run by communists. I understand these sentiments, but disagree. The leftism is less a political force than fanciful self-styling and posturing these days. So I wrote the theory books from the angle of bourgeoise fantasies of revolution that have no active commitment beyond writing papers that only your colleagues can read.
      Having said that, the books were more of an aesthetic than political project. Forgery is fun! Little slogan there!
      Thanks again for your involvement and reblog.

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  6. Samuel Johnson is rumored to have said, “Your work is both original and good. Nevertheless, the part of your work that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” Therein lies the dilemma for the less-than-honest-more-than-desperate among us to borrow or steal outright without attribution. But you see, the real challenge isn’t against a single teacher or educational system to produce a work that passes muster as an A or B paper, but against oneself, to excel, to do better than before, to challenge one’s own capacities. That is the real reason, beneath it all, that plagiarism is a mistake–the perpetrator is robbing himself or herself, not of a grade, perhaps, which he or she might get by fudging, but of an education. And believe you me, some graders’ remarks on papers back are an education in themselves, I’ll give you that, assuming that one takes the time to read them. But then, what do I know, I’ve just within the last few years earned my Ph.D. in English, after having left the system for a number of years. So perhaps I’m a prejudiced party. I am certainly not a conservative, however, and have found that some of the socialists I know in the academic world are the ones who accustom themselves most readily to mystification-by-word (something like death-by-drowning in the forensic world). But then, there’s this little teaser from– (if I’m not getting old and forgetful, which may well be the case, I’m 59 now)–T. S. Eliot: “The inferior poet copies; the superior one steals,” or words to that effect. Of course, in modernism, part of the purpose was referencing bits and pieces of the past, and they were very incestuously inclined as well, word-filching wise, but all that was not a real form of plagiarism, but as I said, a form of referencing: they expected for people to be knowledgeable about whom they were borrowing from, and to reason out why, and what the purpose was in their own work. Sorry, I just feel that if I were employed in academia now, I would still be holding the line as far as plagiarism goes, would still be punitive about it, and don’t regard it as an art form. But your arguments and evidence are both very compelling to suggest that we do need a better system for detecting it. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to go chuntering and wittering on about this; it certainly deserves discussion, which you have provided.

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    • Jeff says:

      Firstly, congratulations on passing your viva (assuming you feel congratulations are in order at the end of it all)! When I made my first application to do a research degree I was told that I ought to get on with it because I ‘was no spring chicken’ at 41. So good for you if you overcame any similar comments from potential supervisors in institutions that are supposed to be bastions of equal ops. Hearing about anyone completing later in life makes the door feel as though it won’t close.
      I have come across Eliot’s comment. It touches on some fundamental aspects to the forged theory books. I’m rather aware as I fragment and reorder source material with AI code that the edited output isn’t just transformed enough to place it under ‘fair use’ legislation: it’s drastically transformed. It’s transformation that distinguishes referencing, allusion, homage and so on from the imitation that Eliot disparaged. Plagiarism, of course, isn’t even imitation.
      Having said all this, I found as I wrote the ‘straight’ introductions to the books, that unexpected questions came to mind. One of them was the value in learning how to write an essay at all. Early neurological research suggests that computer and social media usage is rewiring our brains. It’s getting harder for people to concentrate on long texts and easier to find new connections between small fragments of data. I’ve worked alongside younger people who, on the one hand, struggle to articulate their thoughts, while on the other, are lightning-fast at dealing with data fragments scattered across dozens of open windows. I can’t help but admire the instinctive creativity many of them clearly have.
      I wove these issues, or caveats to more standard views on text, into my ‘translator’s’ introductions. This was because:
      1) those emerging issues will be recognisable to the target audience, and
      2) it avoided the danger of the books closing themselves down with moralising instead of allowing room for the way that education is a part of rather than apart from a changing world, and therefore needs to find ways of grappling with that change.
      So if there’s an art to plagiarism going on in the theory books it’s insofar as:
      1) there’s a rhetorical art to seducing and exploiting the artlessness in the non-reader who thinks it’s ‘valid’ to copy and paste what they think is bona fide material, and
      2) in performing the above seduction, there was an additional art to validating plagiarism with caveats that allow room for new considerations that F.E. and H.E. has to contend with – this being viz the idea that developing essay skills is the sacrosanct way to both encourage thinking and assess that thinking.
      This doesn’t mean that plagiarism isn’t a punishable offence: it’s a breach of a learning agreement. It just means that in writing the books I learned how there are more shades of meaning than I originally expected.
      You are, btw, perfectly welcome to chunter and witter about all this to your heart’s content! It’s joyful to get good discussion out of what’s been a long and secretive enterprise.

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      • I should possibly reveal at this juncture that my own favorite method of learning about writers has been the parody or the travesty of them by other writers, once I’ve been exposed to them. And I’m sort of suggesting, by this, that the parody or travesty is an art form which is second-cousin to plagiarism, the supposed black sheep of the family. One question (sorry, I’m woefully out of date, but “F.E.” and “H.E.” don’t immediately suggest anything to my mind–are they computerese, abbreviations of names I should already know, or what? Or am I just asleep at the wheel, and will I wake up and recognize where the road goes if someone jogs my arm and reminds me?).

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        • P.S. I started in my early fifties to finish my degree at the University of Toronto. They are now recognized in international statistics as being one of the 25 top universities in the world, and they are relatively economical, and when I started out years ago doing my residence work, they practically guaranteed two years’ teaching to any grad student who needed and wanted it, along with numerous other ways and means of getting money, like grants and fellowships and so forth. And when I finished my doctorate back in 2012, I was told that they had accepted a student who was 70 years old! If you’re still looking around for a way and place to finish, why not give them a look-see? Toronto (once known as “Toronto the Good” by its ironists) is a very vibrant city these days.

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          • Jeff says:

            H.E. = Higher Education (i.e. for degrees), and F.E. – Further Education (i.e. for diplomas).
            I would only go back to Uni if I had a clear PhD question, some funding, and a plan about how to use it all.
            Overall I’m put off by education. I’m currently in the position of not being able to apply for anything above bottom rung because of a lack of direct and recent experience, and when applying for bottom rung work I have to disguise my education because otherwise employers think I will ‘get bored’, which (unintentionally) indicates their opportunities for upskilling. The irony I realised when fabricating the theory books is that I’d have been better off reading less at Uni and working some minimum wage hours outside it. A poorer degree result and some recent customer service experience would have put me in a far better position today. Maybe the books’ translator could have touched on this?
            The other thing is that if I suggest any of the above to anybody, I’m immediately reminded of ‘the real benefits of an education.’ This ‘shut up and put up with it’ attitude along with the way that plagiarism is the elephant in the room has been a motivation to put something out there about it. If it fails to raise awareness or much debate then it will at least sit there in the background … doing its thing!

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