Hate the sin, love the sinner

Of the multitude of Wikipedia sins an editor could commit, plagiarism is among the gravest. False authorship strikes at the heart of Wikipedia as a freely licensed resource, built line by line from the voluntary contributions of legions of good samaritans. And while our student editors commit plagiarism less often than other newcomers, it’s still a problem we take very seriously.

In many cases, student editors misunderstand the difference between quotation and citation, adding blocks of text copied from a source (without explicitly indicating the quotation) and citing that source. Other times, a student editor may be in the habit of composing their work by copying and rewriting a source line by line, leading to close paraphrasing that amounts to plagiarism. And of course, there are a few benighted students who copy and paste just to meet their deadlines, hoping they won’t get caught.

Whatever the reasons student editors fall into plagiarism, there is still an opportunity to save their work if their plagiarizing ways are corrected early. This month, we’ve started to rely on EranBot, a bot envisioned by Wikipedian James Heilman and created by Wikipedian Eran Rosenthal. EranBot checks recent edits using the plagiarism prevention system iThenticate and posts potential instances of plagiarism and copyright violation for the Wikipedia community to review. It tags each suspect edit with relevant project information — such as the assigned articles for our student editors. In the short term, we’ll use this tool to monitor and correct plagiarism. It’s also a great proof of concept for the plagiarism prevention system we plan to build later in 2015.

A similar system, using donated access to iThenticate, will be the first of the “just-in-time help” features we’ve got planned for the wikiedu.org course platform. Each edit by one of our program participants will be checked for plagiarism, but instead of simply posting suspected plagiarism for the Wikipedia community to deal with, we will inform that editor. This will give them the chance — and the responsibility — to correct their own mistakes. By showing them the error of their ways immediately, we think we can redeem many of these plagiarists while there is still time to make amends.


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