Saturday, August 25, 2012

Coursera Fantasy & Science Fiction Course and Plagiarism: Part Two

You can find Part One here.


Once again, I wish to direct you to a post by Laura Gibbs in which she addresses plagiarism because her voice, in conjunction with my own, gives a more thorough exploration.

Plagiarism is such a rarity that I doubt most people face in academia; yet, to say it never happens is naïve.  The issue came up early in the coursera forums and, after the course had already begun and people read the first round of essays, Dr. Rabkin issued the statement I shared in a previous post.  I am copying the paragraph towards the end to specifically address the relative uselessness of the statement as a whole. 
Let me summarize. In our community, one should never commit the intellectual fraud of plagiarism, nor should one accuse someone of plagiarism simply on the basis of what might be accidental parallel efforts.
Dr. Rabkin’s statement does not clearly define what plagiarism is.  Rather, there are disconnected sentences that say it is fraud and then compares it with other forms of fraud.  However, on the website he offers to his University of Michigan students who are sitting in his classroom, he copies a definition directly from the LSA Bulletin and another from Random House Dictionary

No matter how many ways I look at this, I can find no justification for the disparity.  If anything, there is a stronger argument for his giving coursera students more specific criterion.  After all, he knows that the students in his classroom have taken the core classes along with the prerequisite classes before being allowed to take the upper level undergraduate courses.  If they need a specific and clear statement in his syllabus, why do the coursera students receive none?  Furthermore, these same students are provided a handbook and, beginning on page 35 there is a discussion of Plagiarism that is very thorough.  We have nothing that comes even close to the content that can be found on pages 35-36 which leads to confusion, violations, and accusations.

Let us return to the summary paragraph.
However, when one does use sources other than one's own critical reading, one should cite anything that isn't common knowledge and build beyond what one has merely found.
As I mentioned in the previous post, he’s mentioned citing works but he has not established how (MLA, APA, Chicago), let alone offered us examples of how, it should be done.  Yet, once again, he offers his physical students more information than his coursera students.  This is especially problematic because some of the registered students are from other countries where academic writing expectations are different from those of a course taught in an American university.  In Middle Eastern, East Asian, and Asian universities, students are expected to quote liberally from the expertise of others—their teachers, their mentors, published books, articles, etc.  (You can read more about this here.)  Assuming Dr. Rabkin is ignorant of this cultural difference, it would nonetheless have been avoided had he deigned to be as thorough with the coursera students as he is with his physical students.  He has not done this in his official statement and the issue continues even into week 4 of the course. 
Together, with care and mutual respect, we can make our community an ever more nurturing place. 
Such disappointment as I read this final statement because I know that for every example of “care and mutual respect” there is at least one of some anonymous peer-review or forum post that shows that there are too many students who do not care and have no respect, mutual or otherwise.  But this is something I’ll address in another post. 

Belated or not, had this statement been adequate, the issue of plagiarism would not continue to be mentioned in the forums.  Every Tuesday, shortly after we receive the essays we are to review, students begin posting about plagiarism.  Further confirming the inadequacy of the statement is the introduction of an Honor Code checkbox this past week (Unit 4:  Frankenstein).  The statement beside this box says:
In accordance with the Honor Code, I certify that my answers here are my own work, and that I have appropriately acknowledged all external sources (if any) that were used in this work.
Surely this would end, once and for all, any confusion or issues right?

Wrong.

This week, I had the dubious honor of receiving the following essay which I have slightly edited by replacing ever word of the essay writer’s original work with a string of x’s.  Every word that is not replaced is copied, directly from a single resource, including the final two paragraphs which are copied in toto verbatim.
Xxxxxxxxxxx xx x xxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxx xxxxx xxxxxx xx xxxxxxxx xx xxxxxx xxx. 
Victor, a scientist, in his quest for knowledge, goes beyond the accepted human limits and seeks access the secret of life. This is how he create a monster, assembled from old body parts and strange chemicals, animated by a mysterious spark. 
The knowledge that Victor used to create the monster (see “Dangerous Knowledge”) xxxxxxxxxx xxx xxx xxxx xxxx xx xxxxx xxxxxxxx, xxx xxxxxx xxxxxx xx xxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxx,  that's the reason why Victor himself is a kind of monster,with his ambition, secrecy, and selfishness. 
The monster is eight feet tall and hideously ugly, the monster is rejected by society. However, his monstrosity results not only from his grotesque appearance but also from the unnatural manner of his creation. He is a product not of collaborative scientific effort but of dark, supernatural workings.   Xxxx xxxxx xxx xxxxx xxxxxxxxxxx…xx xxxxxx xxx xxxxxx xx xxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx, xx xxxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxx Xxx xxx xx xxxxxx xxxx. Xxxxx xxx Xxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxx xxxxxx xx xxx xxx xxxxxxxxx xx xxxxxxx Xxx. In Frankenstein, light symbolizes knowledge, discovery, and enlightenment. The natural world is a place of dark secrets, hidden passages, and unknown mechanisms; the goal of the scientist is then to reach light. The dangerous and more powerful cousin of light is fire. The monster’s first experience with a still-smoldering flame reveals the dual nature of fire: he discovers excitedly that it creates light in the darkness of the night, but also that it harms him when he touches it. 
The presence of fire in the text also brings to mind the full title of Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. The Greek god Prometheus gave the knowledge of fire to humanity and was then severely punished for it. Victor, attempting to become a modern Prometheus, is certainly punished, but unlike fire, his “gift” to humanity—knowledge of the secret of life—remains a secret.

It would take a fool not to realize that this essay is plagiarized.  Or would it?  The essay writer, in the citation field inserted the following:  sparknotes.   Specifically, this page although they only cite the home page.

Overlook for a moment the fact that this student didn’t even cite properly, regardless if he/she chose to use MLA or any of the other styles the professor couldn’t be bothered to specify, it is apparent that this student is either blatantly plagiarizing or, and I am inclined to give this student the benefit of the doubt, there is no understanding of what it means to plagiarize

If you were to reread the statement the professor did give, you can’t help but recognize that it cannot suffice in the face of ignorance, whether it is cultural or not.  Had it been enough, how would I have received this, essay weeks after the official statement was pinned in the forums?

But why does any of this matter?  There are no college credits offered for this course, after all.  Should it matter at all?   Yes, it matters and here is why:

There are those within academia that do not want to see MOOCs succeed and coursera, among others, is being watched.  Forbes recently had an article specifically focusing on the problem of plagiarism in this course.  There have been other articles about the plagiarism issue in coursera appearing in Huffington Post, Slate, and The Chronicle of Higher Education

But again, these courses are not worth much more than the time a student devotes to the particular readings and the writing requirements—including writing the essay and the peer-reviews.  Sure, the course purports to be just like a college level course.  Where is the proof?

Perhaps it lies in here, in a different statement about the course’s workload, where Dr. Rabkin explains, “if you were a student in my fantasy or my science fiction course at the University of Michigan, you would be asked to read the same quantity of material as you are asked to do here” (link).  And yet, he cannot or will not provide his coursera students the same criteria as he does the others which leaves ample room for students to misunderstand or, worse, outright thwart the system altogether.  Without a clear explanation of how to cite let alone a very clear definition of what plagiarism is (and can it get any clearer than what is in the handbook that each of his upper level undergraduate students receive?), why is anyone surprised that this is happening?

What is the solution?  What can coursera do to ensure that the next iteration of this course, or any other course that will require the submission of essays, does not have the same problems with plagiarism?

First, as I’ve recommended before, a prerequisite course that teaches students how to write an essay about literature should be offered before this class is offered again.   If University of Michigan students work their way through several prerequisite courses, is it unreasonable to at least make one a requirement for what is supposed to be an upper level undergraduate English literature course?  By not offering one, coursera is throwing a lot of the students into deep water without a life preserver.

Second, criteria for both how to cite resources and clearly explaining plagiarism should be provided to all coursera students who register for this course.  Samples of essays, as well as reviews, would further allow for a clearer understanding of the expectations for both.  Without specific criteria and without examples, the coursera students are being tossed around, not knowing what anyone expects and some of the students are more than willing to shove one another down rather than help.

Third, students who receive an essay which is plagiarized should have a means to report the essay and not be required to review the essay.  Rather, the essay should be turned over for assessment.  If the essay is indeed plagiarized, the offending student would contacted and warned that another violation would result in immediate expulsion; included with this would be a copy of the criterion that explains what plagiarism is.  However, should the essay be proved to be free from plagiarism, the student who made the false report would be warned that if they make another false accusation, they will no longer be allowed to submit essays and will be allowed to audit the class and nothing more.

Fourth, in order to report an essay as being plagiarized, the student must provide specific quotes, including links to the resources.  Plagiarism software (i.e. plagtrack and others) is notorious for pulling up erroneous links as evidence and the student reporting the plagiarism would be required to research each link, to verify that it is not merely finding properly cited quotes from the supposedly plagiarized essay.  (FYI, for those who think that a person could simply plagiarize a book, although googlebooks may not offer full texts for every book out there, more often than not, if you have a quote from a text, it will access the one or two sentences while blocking access to more than what immediately precedes and follows your search results.  But I digress.)

The work required to prove plagiarism would limit the number of false accusations and the threat of losing the certification (for whatever that is worth, really) should a second false accusation be made would further reduce the risk of false claims of plagiarism.  

Because Dr. Rabkin and coursera have not seen fit to provide a criteria equal to what is provided to the students at the University of Michigan, they cannot suggest that this course is the same even if they defend the course's workload under that measurement.  Nor can they begrudge those who point to this course in particular as evidence for how MOOCs are failing their students, the academic community, and the entire vision of free educational resources in general. 

I hope that these problems will be resolved before the end of the course.  If they are not, I hope they will not be repeated should this course be offered again.  Should neither of these hopes be fulfilled, then I can only hope that those websites out there trying to build a better humanities course will pay heed and not repeat the mistakes being made in this otherwise enjoyable and informative course.  The future of MOOCs may depend on it.


Friday, August 24, 2012

In Praise of Coursera and the Fantasy & Science Fiction Course


Before I dig into what I am loving (or at least mostly liking) about coursera’s Fantasy & Science Fiction course, I want to share a few links.

First, Laura Gibbs wrote about the peer-review process in her blog. Yes, I’ve already written about it but, since then, there have been more threads about the abuse some students are receiving in the peer-review comments and she specifically addresses some of those. 

Okay.  Time for me to roll up my sleeves and focus on the good.  Why?  Because I’m tired of the negativity and need a break from it.  And I do not want anyone to think that there is nothing of value in this course.

First and foremost, the readings.
I’ve taken online courses that purport to be college level and this is the first time I’ve seen evidence of this in the resources used in the class.  Not simply because many of the books are canonical but because the rate at which we are expected to read is not casual.  More than one unit requires that two books be read in a single week.  This is not unusual for a typical college course and it is nice to finally see an online course that meets at least that expectation.  In fact, if you look at the coursera syllabus for this class and compare it with the ones the professor has posted for his traditional classroom courses, there is very little difference between the reading requirements.

Second, the introductory “Before You Read” video for each unit.
Just as a professor would do in a class, some contextual introduction is offered.  Whether the idea is to consider the cultural or societal changes occurring when I novel was written or the personal life experiences of the author, and whatever else seems to strike a professor’s fancy.  In a traditional classroom these are meant to whet the appetite of the students and I have to say that Dr. Rabkin does a good job with this.  I’m tempted to say “great” but I don’t really know where the quality of what he says ends and my personal enthusiasm begins.  I mean, I signed up for the course for a reason and I really do love to read so I might be more open to appreciating every word than not.

Third, the writing assignments.
I’ll go into this more when I write about the process of sharing essays but I do appreciate the opportunity to once again write about literature.  I have missed doing this.  I am begrudging when it comes to the word count because I have only once managed to pick a thesis that is narrow enough to be adequately supported in so few words.  Then again, recalling some of the essays I’ve had to read as part of the peer-review process, I’m not sure I would want to read longer essays so that seems like a fair trade-off. 

Fourth, the whole idea of MOOCs in general.
College level courses available for free.  Sure, one can find a plethora of syllabi online.  Theoretically one could grab a syllabus, obtain the various texts, and read through the course independently but the give and take of a classroom discussion, the lectures and background information a professor provides, would all be lacking.  It would take a remarkable amount of discipline and flexibility to recreate that college course experience.  And yet, here they are for the taking.  Just register and participate.  When one considers that I am currently unemployed, I cannot emphasize enough how profoundly I appreciate the opportunity to take a college level course.

I had hoped to link to someone’s blog post about why they are really enjoying the coursera experience but they posted it on google+ and now I can’t find it anywhere.  I am guessing she didn’t hashtag it or I’d have found it by now.  Anyway, her reasons were, for the most part, subjective—the convenience of taking a course from home, at odd hours, not needing to commute to a classroom. All of these are good points and ones she offered as a counterpoint to the many complaints floating around. 

To be frank, I don’t know that subjective reasons outweigh the very real problems that students are bringing up but this is all beta.  Coursera is still trying to get some bearings and will hopefully be making changes as we progress.  They’ve already made a couple of tweaks that I’ll be happy to mention in my upcoming blog posts.  In the meantime, I really wanted to express some of the things that I appreciate about this course.  Perhaps this will also put some of my other posts in perspective because I seriously want to see MOOCs succeed.  There are a lot of articles floating across the internet about coursera and other sites where similar courses are being offered, most of them not highlighting the best or even considering the positive potential of what is being created.

I consider it a privilege and even exciting to be at the groundswell of what I hope will be a thriving movement.  Maybe it’s just a part of my post-punk-ethic; or maybe it’s my fundamental belief that knowledge and art should be free and freely accessible. 

MOOCs matter.  In an election when candidates are suggesting that higher education is not necessary while making promises to cut “discretionary spending” which includes funding all levels education, MOOCs really matter!


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Coursera Fantasy & Science Fiction Course and Plagiarism: Part One

This week I received an essay for the peer-review which was plagiarized.  This week coursera also introduced a small check box at the top of the page where we submit our essay.

Before submitting the essay you check the box which basically says:  In accordance with the Honor Code, I certify that my answers here are my own work, and that I have appropriately acknowledged all external sources (if any) that were used in this work.

I honestly wanted to write a post praising the course and had begun one.  Then this plagiarism issue came up and up, and up, like bile.  In order to approach this properly, I need to establish a foundation for a few things.  Therefore, this post is long because it will be referred to in the next post I write which will address things more subjectively and closely.  I ask that, if you are curious to read more about the issue with plagiarism in coursera, you begin here so that, when I post more of my own thoughts, you will better understand some of the things I say and why I say them.  You do not have to memorize every jot and tittle but should have a context for the argument(s) to come because there is one (or more) coming and it may take me as many words as I share in here to say all I feel needs to be said then and there.

Thank you.  Now read on, Macduff.

Here is what Dr. Rabkin's website for the University of Michigan has regarding plagiarism (and I have used a strike through to indicate what coursera cannot do because you obviously can't be expelled from a free online course):
PLAGIARISM: I endorse the standard definitions of plagiarism: "submitting a piece of work (for example an essay, research paper, assignment, laboratory report) which in part or in whole is not entirely the student's own work without attributing those same portions to their correct source" (LSA Bulletin, 1993-1994, p. 44); "the appropriation or imitation of the language, ideas, and thoughts of another author, and representation of them as one's original work" (Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged edition, 1966). With the exception of knowledge which is demonstrably common (for example, 2 + 2 = 4) or whose source is demonstrably well known (for example, "To be or not to be"), material submitted without citation is normally presumed to have originated with the submitter. Therefore, work or parts of a work submitted without citation will be construed as having been submitted as originating with the submitter. If it appears that uncited work did not originate with the submitter, the work will be turned over to the appropriate College authorities for their determination as to whether or not plagiarism has occurred. LSA exacts diverse penalties for plagiarism, up to and including permanent expulsion from the University. Plagiarism, then, is a deeply serious matter. It strikes at the core values of an institution designed to promote individual achievement in large part through the free and honest exchange of ideas among us all. I welcome all efforts you may make to learn. It is quite normal, for example, to talk with colleagues about one's ideas and to consult such secondary sources as language dictionaries, symbol dictionaries, bibliographies, biographies, concordances, and so on. It is less usual among undergraduates to consult secondary sources such as critical articles, but such consultation is certainly legitimate. However, remember that the aims of the writing assignments are (a) to prepare you for class; (b) to make you a better reader; (c) to make you a better writer; and (d) to make your own contribution to the education of the intelligent senior in the class. In order to achieve those aims, you must do original work.  (link)
This was copied from his syllabus which, at the bottom, links to websites that explain MLA formatting.  In the same syllabus, there is a link for "Essay Formats and Notes" which goes into some detail about the course expectations.  Here is just a small paragraph from the entire text:
In all cases of citation, if it can be done elegantly, it is best to make your citations interlinear and, ideally, make the source of the citation known in your text (e.g., "As Rubble says, 'feh feh' (x)."). If you cannot make the source known in your text itself, add it to the parenthetical reference (e.g., "blah blah blah (Rubble x) blah"). If you have two works by the same author, whether footnoted or not, and you cannot elegantly distinguish them in your own text, do so by a short form of the title in your parentheses (e.g., "Hawthorne blah blah flower imagery blah 'feh' ("Rappaccini" x) and also 'feh feh' ("Heidegger" x)" referring to two stories by Hawthorne, "Rappaccin's Daughter" and "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment"). If you need to provide the author and the title parenthetically, do so (e.g., "blah blah the passion for science 'feh feh' (Hawthorne, "Artist" x) and blah blah (Poe, "Valdemar" x)."). Words used in your main text (e.g., "As Rubble says") are to be counted as words in the word count you put in your header; words used in parenthetical citations, including the name of an author and the short form of a title, are not to be counted as words in the word count you put in your header.  (link)
Later, in this same page, he states that he is using MLA and, as I've mentioned before, he does provide his students with links to resources to help with MLA formatting.

And now, here is what the coursera syllabus says about how to cite works:

Nothing--Not Even a Link

In fact, this is the entire content of what we, the students, are told about writing an essay.  Notice, not one word about citations:
The Essays Your essays should aim to enrich the reading of a fellow student who is both intelligent and attentive to the readings and to the course. Each essay should be between 270 and 320 words. Attentive readers notice more than casual readers do, although casual readers may be responding unconsciously to many of the matters that attentive readers notice consciously. This difference in reading awareness arises in part from the fact that attention is limited. If I am attentive to the use of triples in fairy tales (three brothers on a quest, three questions testing the hero, and so on), then I might find that I’m not consciously attentive to other aspects of the narrative (the comparative intrinsic worth or worthlessness of the object of the quest, the rhetorical construction of a testing question, and so on). Because attention is limited, to understand works more deeply we need to slow down and take note of aspects of the reading that we find significant. Then, using those notes and reviewing the work, we can come to a hypothesis about what that significance might be. For example, if one notices that fairy godmothers occur only for child protagonists whose biological mother is dead, one might hypothesize that, at least psychologically, the fairy godmother takes the role of a mother and the fairy godmother’s entrance in a story is a promise of the love and protection that the protagonist has had taken away. The fairy godmother, then, is not so much a figure of magic as her magic is a metaphor for the continuing power of motherhood. Writing these essays and reading and commenting on the essays of your fellow students should make you much better prepared to learn from, and even question, the unit clips. Therefore, these essays should be submitted before viewing any of the unit clips other than the introduction.  (link)
There is also a video "How to Write an Essay for This Course" which pretty much reiterates the above paragraph and, needless to say, does not address how to quote or cite work at all.  (I also have a feeling that, in order to access this content, you have to be registered for the course so I apologize if these coursera links do not work.  You'll just have to take my word for it, I guess.  Oh, wait. I cited my copying by linking to the original.  Never mind.)

Here is a statement that was released on 14 August from the professor.  Compare what follows with the above and remember that this course began 23 July:
Dear Folks, 
There has been some discussion about plagiarism on our forums. I would like to offer a few comments on that subject. 
First, plagiarism, both legally and morally, is a variety of fraud. Claiming falsely to be the long-lost child of a recently deceased person in order to claim some of the estate is fraud; claiming falsely to be the originator of an idea in order to claim some credit for successful creation is fraud. In a course--or any intellectual community--misrepresentation of originality is unacceptable. It strikes at the heart of mutual trust, a condition one must have in order to support the deepest, freest discourse. For this reason Coursera has an honor code and I endorse it: 
Coursera Honor Code
In order to ensure fairness, all students participating in any of our online classes must agree to abide by the following code of conduct:
  • I will register for only one account.
  • My answers to homework, quizzes and exams will be my own work (except for assignments that explicitly permit collaboration).
  • I will not make solutions to homework, quizzes or exams available to anyone else. This includes both solutions written by me, as well as any official solutions provided by the course staff.
  • I will not engage in any other activities that will dishonestly improve my results or dishonestly improve/hurt the results of others. 
Second, precisely because plagiarism is so fundamental an attack on an intellectual community, an accusation of plagiarism is a deeply serious act and should be made only with concrete evidence behind it. An unjustified attack can be as damaging to the context of our conversation as can be the act of plagiarism itself. Both plagiarism and a careless accusation of plagiarism suggest a disrespect that we should all consider beneath us. 
Third, plagiarism is hard to demonstrate for two reasons. (A) Most people don't cite sources for common knowledge. No one will think a writer is taking credit for coining the phrase, "Honesty is the best policy" or the observation that Lewis Carroll enjoys creating linguistic paradoxes. The first is known to all educated native speakers of English (and we are reading and writing in English, so no one should expect a citation for that proverb) and the second should be obvious to the intelligent and attentive fellow participant in this course (and that person is our theoretical audience so, again, no citation is necessary). However, precisely because common knowledge is common and expectable in our readers, merely reporting common knowledge doesn't enrich our reading. Therefore, an essay full only of common knowledge doesn't fulfill our task. At least in Content, it would earn a 1. An enriching essay needs to offer us more. 
(B) Good ideas often occur to more than one person at a time. Wallace and Darwin independently and nearly simultaneously articulated and promulgated the theory of evolution now known as Darwinism. Leibniz and Newton independently and nearly simultaneously articulated and promulgated what is now known as differential calculus. In reading Dracula, many people will notice that class structure or competitive sexuality are important. Merely noticing that does not constitute enrichment of others; however, noticing that, exploring that, and reaching conclusions about that does not inherently constitute plagiarism. 
On the other hand, if you search the web for ideas about Dracula and find, say, a discussion of class in that novel and then present that as if it were your own, that is fraud; that is plagiarism; that is a violation of the Honor Code and, to my mind, more importantly, that is a violation of our mutual trust. 
Why do it? Why lift someone else's idea and claim it as your own? 
If you have no idea of your own and feel you need one, you might be tempted into this fraud. Don't do it. We all need to improve our ability to develop ideas; appropriating other people's ideas kills that opportunity for practice, growth, and pointed response. Ah, one might say, but I haven't time and I need the grade. Well, if you haven't time, just skip the essay. There's no requirement that each be submitted and in fact the course is structured so that you can miss one or two and still get an outstanding grade. But, one might say, I need even this essay to get that good grade. Do you really? This isn't a credit-bearing course. What will you do with a good grade other than know you've received it? Would anyone want to believe that they had received a grade by fraud rather than by accomplishment? Aren't we all here to enjoy the literature and grow together? 
If you search the web and read an article that sticks with you and you inadvertently appropriate a brief phrase in your own essay, that is plagiarism. I know that one might feel wrongly accused in this case. After all, the error was accidental, not intentional. Well, folks, unfortunately, from the viewpoint of the community, that distinction is irrelevant. We have no way of knowing the motivations behind using a phrase encountered elsewhere. What we do know is that every disciplined scholar keeps track of their sources. If you are accused, with evidence, of plagiarism and feel your error was inadvertent, you should accept the unsatisfactory grade and apologize (at least in your own mind) not for plagiarism (there is no fraud by accident) but for intellectual carelessness. Learn to be more careful, maybe even in one's mind thank your accuser for catching your inadvertent mistake, and then go on in the course, looking forward to the next assignment, which you will address as a more careful scholar. 
And if the plagiarism is demonstrable? If someone obviously lifts a whole paragraph, say, from another source and gives no credit, what then? Then that person should be confronted with the evidence and that person ought to consider publicly apologizing and even withdrawing from the course. If one is unwilling to support an intellectual community of mutual respect, one ought not to participate in it. If such a person cares to read the books and listen to the tapes, fine; but a plagiarist is not truly a part of our community and should not masquerade as such, asking us to read an essay as if it were truly original and asking us to respond to an essay as if the writer truly sought genuine dialog and coaching. We all deserve better than to be subjected to fraud. We owe each other honesty and, I am happy to say, that seems to be, in the enormous majority of our interactions, just what we give. 
Anyway, why would one lift whole phrases, sentences, paragraphs without citation? Citation adds to your scholarly authority; it does not diminish it. True, if you say nothing more than what you have found in the work of others, you have not enriched our understanding. However, if you use the work of others to build an argument of your own, you have not only offered us the products of your thinking but of your scholarship. No one ever disparages a well wrought argument that employs among its resources ideas and facts gathered from others. 
Let me summarize. In our community, one should never commit the intellectual fraud of plagiarism, nor should one accuse someone of plagiarism simply on the basis of what might be accidental parallel efforts. However, when one does use sources other than one's own critical reading, one should cite anything that isn't common knowledge and build beyond what one has merely found. Together, with care and mutual respect, we can make our community an ever more nurturing place. 
I look forward to all of us continuing to grow together. 
Yours truly,
Eric Rabkin (link)

I really am looking forward to sharing some of the positives but I think that, because we are four weeks into the course and people are still getting poorly written essays and even receiving plagiarized work, impatience has hit and anger is causing some backlash, as evidenced by what's happening in the forum.  But all of that will wait for the next part of this look at how plagiarism is causing problems in this particular course.

Frankenstein Essays That Didn't Make the Cut

This week, for the F&SF course, I ended up writing three essays.  These two didn't "make the cut" because I could not adequately support my thesis within the 320 word limit.  I ended up submitting a piece that was less provocative and perhaps even not quite as interesting.  Anyway, here are my rejects.


Victor Frankenstein’s hubris is typically defined by his attempt to create life out of death, reanimating the pieced together bodies of various corpses.  However, this act, rooted as it is in ignorance, is far less arrogant than his determination to confront his Creation for, even in the face of the threat the creature has made, Frankenstein does not hesitate to marry his cousin, Elizabeth, ensuring further suffering because his pride would not let him learn the lessons of his past experience.

When confronted with the horror of what he has created, rather than take responsibility for his choices, Frankenstein rejects the Creature.  This is the first of many rejections which together conspire to evoke in the Creature a need for revenge.  With an opportunity to avenge himself on his very creator, he begins to systematically hurt Frankenstein.  He first murders Frankenstein’s brother and effects to frame Justine, a beloved servant in the Frankenstein home.  Because Frankenstein does not confess all he knows, he allows the Creature to continue to reap vengeance upon him. 

The Creature, for his part, offers to disappear but Frankenstein is unable to fulfill the demands, fully expecting that he will be killed by his own creation.  Instead, it is Henry Clarvel, his best friend, who is murdered.  This is not enough to keep Frankenstein from presuming to be anticipatory of the Creature’s next move.   Rather, with full awareness that the Creature has promised to be there on his wedding night, Frankenstein moves forward with his intention to marry Elizabeth, believing that, in doing so, he shall either kill his creation himself or be killed.  Unfortunately, it is not Victor who is assaulted but Elizabeth and her death further results in the death of Frankenstein’s father. 

Having already experienced how the Creature sought revenge, not by directly attacking Frankenstein but those who were close to him, Frankenstein’s determination to marry Elizabeth is more an act of hubris then the experiment that resulted in his nemesis’ existence.  If ignorance allowed him to reach for the stars, it is his hubris that causes the stars in his life to be destroyed, resulting in his own inevitable destruction.

And the other.  I usually don't put in my citations until I revise.  The next essay has a few in because I wrote it the morning the essay itself was due to be turned in and I knew that, if it had been chosen, I'd have less time to search for each reference I needed so I was trying to avoid the extra stress.

Thematically, incest infuses Shelley’s Frankenstein, with several relationships blurring the lines of what was becoming an impropriety.  While consanguinity between cousins was still acceptable, between siblings it was frowned upon by Georgian society.  The ambiguous definition of Elizabeth’s role and relationship within the Frankenstein is alluded to by several characters in the novel, including herself.

Frankenstein’s parents both encourage Victor to marry his cousin but his father further suggests that his son may not wish to do so because “you . . . regard her as your sister” (120).  Victor himself says that she is “more than sister” and later suggests that she is “more than daughter” to his father.  Likewise, Elizabeth identifies herself as a mother to Victor’s younger brothers as “our dear children” (43). 

Everyone within the family, including Elizabeth, sees her as cousin-spouse-sister-mother-daughter, a complex overlapping of her familial position and role suggesting that, even within a society where marriage between cousins is permissible, the marriage between her and Victor Frankenstein is more implicit and may be, if not physically so, an emotionally incestuous union. 

Correspondingly, when the Creature confronts his creator and demands of Frankenstein that he provide for him a companion like himself, due to the androcentric ontology of his own existence, the Creature is, in effect, asking him to make both a sister and spouse.  The latter is evident when Frankenstein, realizing the full implication of what he is doing, chooses to destroy the female creation before giving it life, because of the dread he feels at the thought that the two would reproduce “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth” (??).  Frankenstein is horrified at the very thought of his creation procreating with a second creation and their off-spring carrying on the legacy of incest with the inevitability of siblings being mated to one another for several generations to come.

In fact, all of Frankenstein’s familial bonds are blurred into distortion—his parents seeing his cousin as a daughter, his cousin seeing herself as mother and wife, and even his own awareness that his creation is indeed his child, creating a more complex and clearly incestuous confusion by implication if not by fact.  

The punchline (or is it a slap in the face?) to my having written not one, not two, but three variations of Frankenstein essays is that I received a plagiarized essay to be peer reviewed.  It's disappointing, to say the least and all the more frustrating given how very much I struggled to find a thesis that was small enough to be fully developed within the word count limit.