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.
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.
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?
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.