Jumping the Gun

By Jordan Mowat

Being biased comes with being human; it can’t be helped. Try as one might to establish neutrality in courtrooms, career goals, and social disputes, there are always personal factors influencing our courses of action. This is fair. Even those conducting scientific experiments admit to the necessity of bias. A hypothesis, the starting point of any experiment, is a no more than a suggestion. However, “Technology and Plagiarism in the University” authors Johnson, Patton, Bimber, Almeroth, and Michaels of the University of California, Santa Barbara seem to have allowed their bias to seep a little too far. Indeed, I couldn’t help but feel alarmed when I read, regarding their strategy in using a computer program to cross-reference student papers to find copied phrases, that they “approached the problem empirically by making multiple runs, varying the phrase length each time, until [they] found a useful value” (8).

What determines a “useful value” in apprehending cheaters is never accurately defined by Johnson et al. They found that the majority of papers with many short phrases in common with each other accounted largely for coincidences, idiomatic phrases, and the like, whereas using a very long phrase to compare the papers to each other left too much for ignorance of phrases with a single word changed. Their evaluation of “too many” and “too few” is based on conjecture, experience, and hand-readings of papers reported, but with the possibility of serious punishment for the students, this is absolutely not enough certainty. I am left wondering just what triggered this particular study in the first place – too many good grades, perhaps? Looking to the study’s introduction, I see their suspicions are even less relevantly founded. Johnson et al argue that “students have at their disposal a broad palette of quite powerful [plagiarizing] techniques” (1). In that case, I’d better start wearing a football helmet to school. Those textbooks my professor totes around could be lethal if thrown. While we’re at it, let’s standardize Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist and get all of those madmen in jail before they cause any trouble. Bias I could understand, but Johnson et al demonstrate presumptuous discrimination.


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