Will Digital Plagiarism Detectors Become Commonplace?

By: Sonya Moore

Ask John Barrie, president and founder of iParadigms LLC, whether his company’s services to detect plagiarism, widely used on campuses, are applicable for newspapers, and you get a confident answer before you’re even finished: “If they’re not, I would be dumbfounded.” The Oakland, Calif.-based company recently played a crucial role in revealing that Central Connecticut State University’s president, Richard Judd, plagiarized from several sources (including The New York Times) for an opinion piece he wrote for The Hartford (Conn.) Courant.

So far, the Courant (Click for QuikCap) is the only newspaper that has used his digital “document source analysis” tools, which compare documents with databases of other writing including news sources and encyclopedias in an effort to detect plagiarism. Barrie thinks newspapers’ reluctance to use his online services is similar to the reason that many schools were initially wary: “I don’t think anyone wanted to step up and be the first to admit that there is a problem.” According to Barrie, human measures such as ombudsmen or public editors aren’t good enough. “It’s essentially as good as doing nothing,” he says about having people check for plagiarism.

At the same time, Barrie doesn’t think that people will lose their jobs because of his iThenticate offering. “It’s a technical tool just like anything else,” he says, calling it a “next generation spellchecker.” Instead, editors may have to take on new responsibilities such as properly interpreting the iThenticate reports.

“The real benefit is not so much in catching the person,” Barrie explains, but in its preventive power to discourage writers from copying their material in the first place by letting them know that their work can and will be checked thoroughly.

In the recent case in Connecticut, what started out as a reader’s complaint about factual errors and possible plagiarism in Judd’s Feb. 26 column ended with the outing of the university president for copying verbatim 11% of his column from several sources. The results also showed that the Jan. 7, 2003, New York Times article from which Judd extracted a whole sentence was posted on another Web site without the paper’s permission.

This incident illustrates very well what Barrie thinks are two major problems faced by publishers nowadays in a digital age where the sheer number of different sources and their availability makes plagiarism such a big problem. First, publishers usually don’t know how original an article they plan to publish is. The second problem is they also “have no idea who’s stealing it,” Barrie says.

According to their Web site, iParadigms began in 1996 as computer programs used by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley to inspect research papers written by undergraduate classes. The researchers worked with mathematicians, teachers and computer scientists, creating Plagiarism.org, “the world’s first Internet-based plagiarism detection service.”

Currently the company provides online services such as Turnitin.com, which detects plagiarism in academic work at high schools, colleges and universities. There’s also iThenticate, the commercial version that serves publications, corporations and law firms. By uploading documents to the site, a publisher can receive a report back in seconds detailing what parts and how much has been plagiarized and from where. The company currently charges $10 per page, with a $1,000 licensing fee for the iThenticate service.

As Courant reporter Loretta Waldman was preparing to write a story about Richard Judd’s plagiarized column, she found the iParadigms Web site. When she contacted the company for expert opinion on plagiarism, iParadigms offered to run a free screening of the column for the newspaper. That search found that 11% of the material had been plagiarized from several sources.

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