[Paleopsych] Ed Tenner: Rise of the Plagiosphere
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Wed Jun 1 21:40:00 UTC 2005
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
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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