[Paleopsych] Rise of the Plagiosphere
shovland at mindspring.com
Fri May 27 13:25:57 UTC 2005
By Ed Tenner June 2005 1 of 1
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
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
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
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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