Solution to Dr Willmott's plagiarism puzzle

June 4, 2004

The sentence “However, it is important…” has a distinctly different and more authoritative ‘voice’ than the rather casual opening sentence. Just for good measure, the citation is bogus; an attempt to stop the marker realising it is lifted wholesale from Wilkinson M. J. et al (2003) Risk assessment of GM plants: avoiding gridlock? Trends in Plant Science 8:208-212. Furlong and Gallen, as connoisseurs of Nationwide football will know, are the main strikeforce of QPR’s promotion-winning team. Even without this specialist knowledge, typing "aspects of a dynamic agro-environment" (including the inverted commas) into Google throws up only one link, to a PDF copy of the Wilkinson paper.

Several clues, including an illustration involving an American company, the US spelling of ‘diarrhea’ and use of ‘gotten’, raise suspicions that this section has its origins on the other side of the pond. This is confirmed by typing “gotten ill after the Starlink”, in inverted commas, into Google, whereupon the only hit is “Facts about Biotech”, URL http:/// (omission of the inverted commas throws up 429 references, although our source is still second on the list). Reading the original article also reveals that the assumed prior knowledge about the Starlink variety of corn in the plagiarised sentence is a consequence of the exclusion of an earlier sentence that supplied this necessary background information.

The paragraph beginning “Some people raise..." is a thinly re-written section from the Nuffield Bioethics report on GM crops (available online at: http:/// Clues to its electronic origin come from the inclusion of a numbered reference, where the pattern elsewhere in the ‘essay’ is to use author names and, more subtly, a change in the line spacing (which I have to confess was, on this occasion, contrived for the purpose).

The final paragraph provided is not guilty of any technical misdemeanour. The reference is genuine (Hughes S. and Bryant J. (2002) GM crops and food: a scientific perspective, in Bioethics for Scientists (Ed. Bryant, Baggott la Velle and Searle), Wiley) though the inclusion of this citation in the way that it has been used does gives a false impression of their views on GM. This is a good place to point out that nothing should be inferred from this exercise about the real attitudes towards GM of the scientists or, for that matter, the footballers mentioned. We are not sure that A Corner-Cutter has an opinion of his own.

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Some strategies for preventing plagiarism

  • Explain clearly the nature of the assignment
  • Specify particular books or websites that must be used as some of the source materials
  • Require the submission of a rough draft
  • Require an oral presentation
  • Educate students about good note-taking skills
  • Model good practice eg in handouts and lesson notes
  • Educate about appropriate referencing
  • Educate about boundaries of acceptable practice
  • Stress that writing exercises are not just about the final product but about the skills developed along the way
  • Carry out meta-learning activity eg how did you go about finding your sources?; which source was the most useful and why?; what was the biggest difficulty you faced in writing this essay?; what is the most important thing you have learned by doing this exercise? 

Some clues that plagiarism is at work

  • Inappropriate or inconsistent “voice”
  • Signs of electronic origins including:
    - Unnecessary changes in font or formatting
    - American spellings
    - Discussion of K-12 [US term] education
    - References from obscure and/or mainly overseas publications
    - Stray text eg superscript footnotes

Chris Willmott, Tackling Plagiarism in Biology, 2004 with thanks to those who have done greater pioneering work in this area, including Robert Harris ( ).

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