[Paleopsych] Ed Tenner: Rise of the Plagiosphere

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Ed Tenner: Rise of the Plagiosphere

    The 1960s gave us, among other mind-altering ideas, a revolutionary
    new metaphor for our physical and chemical surroundings: the
    biosphere. But an even more momentous change is coming. Emerging
    technologies are causing a shift in our mental ecology, one that will
    turn our culture into the plagiosphere, a closing frontier of ideas.

    The Apollo missions' photographs of Earth as a blue sphere helped win
    millions of people to the environmentalist view of the planet as a
    fragile and interdependent whole. The Russian geoscientist Vladimir
    Vernadsky had coined the word "biosphere" as early as 1926, and the
    Yale University biologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson had expanded on the
    theme of Earth as a system maintaining its own equilibrium. But as the
    German environmental scholar Wolfgang Sachs observed, our imaging
    systems also helped create a vision of the planet's surface as an
    object of rationalized control and management--a corporate and
    unromantic conclusion to humanity's voyages of discovery.

    What NASA did to our conception of the planet, Web-based technologies
    are beginning to do to our understanding of our written thoughts. We
    look at our ideas with less wonder, and with a greater sense that
    others have already noted what we're seeing for the first time. The
    plagiosphere is arising from three movements: Web indexing, text
    matching, and paraphrase detection.

    The first of these movements began with the invention of programs
    called Web crawlers, or spiders. Since the mid-1990s, they have been
    perusing the now billions of pages of Web content, indexing every
    significant word found, and making it possible for Web users to
    retrieve, free and in fractions of a second, pages with desired words
    and phrases.

    The spiders' reach makes searching more efficient than most of
    technology's wildest prophets imagined, but it can yield unwanted
    knowledge. The clever phrase a writer coins usually turns out to have
    been used for years, worldwide--used in good faith, because until
    recently the only way to investigate priority was in a few books of
    quotations. And in our accelerated age, even true uniqueness has been
    limited to 15 minutes. Bons mots that once could have enjoyed a
    half-life of a season can decay overnight into cliches.

    Still, the major search engines have their limits. Alone, they can
    check a phrase, perhaps a sentence, but not an extended document. And
    at least in their free versions, they generally do not produce results
    from proprietary databases like LexisNexis, Factiva, ProQuest, and
    other paid-subscription sites, or from free databases that dynamically
    generate pages only when a user submits a query. They also don't
    include most documents circulating as electronic manuscripts with no
    permanent Web address.

    Enter text-comparison software. A small handful of entrepreneurs have
    developed programs that search the open Web and proprietary databases,
    as well as e-books, for suspicious matches. One of the most popular of
    these is Turnitin; inspired by journalism scandals such as the New
    York Times' Jayson Blair case, its creators offer a version aimed at
    newspaper editors. Teachers can submit student papers electronically
    for comparison with these databases, including the retained texts of
    previously submitted papers. Those passages that bear resemblance to
    each other are noted with color highlighting in a double-pane view.

    Two years ago I heard a speech by a New Jersey electronic librarian
    who had become an antiplagiarism specialist and consultant. He
    observed that comparison programs were so thorough that they often
    flagged chance similarities between student papers and other
    documents. Consider, then, that Turnitin's spiders are adding 40
    million pages from the public Web, plus 40,000 student papers, each
    day. Meanwhile Google plans to scan millions of library
    books--including many still under copyright--for its Print database.
    The number of coincidental parallelisms between the various things
    that people write is bound to rise steadily.

    A third technology will add yet more capacity to find similarities in
    writing. Artificial-intelligence researchers at MIT and other
    universities are developing techniques for identifying nonverbatim
    similarity between documents to make possible the detection of
    nonverbatim plagiarism. While the investigators may have in mind only
    cases of brazen paraphrase, a program of this kind can multiply the
    number of parallel passages severalfold.

    Some universities are encouraging students to precheck their papers
    and drafts against the emerging plagiosphere. Perhaps publications
    will soon routinely screen submissions. The problem here is that while
    such rigorous and robust policing will no doubt reduce cheating, it
    may also give writers a sense of futility. The concept of the
    biosphere exposed our environmental fragility; the emergence of the
    plagiosphere perhaps represents our textual impasse. Copernicus may
    have deprived us of our centrality in the cosmos, and Darwin of our
    uniqueness in the biosphere, but at least they left us the illusion of
    the originality of our words. Soon that, too, will be gone.

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