Tag Archives: theft

Kids learn to plagiarize from their public school teachers

Use quotation marks to avoid plagiarism
This is a made-up quote inspired by a public school teacher who plagiarized me (twice). Please use this slide in your presentations to teachers-in-training.

This post is for public school principals and superintendents — people who are in a position to set broad educational policies and to rally teachers, staff, and students to achieve those goals.

Here’s my plea: ask your teachers to use quotation marks and citations when they copy/paste text into Prezi shows and syllabi.  Without explicit marching orders, some teachers seem to plagiarize, and then their impressionable students may end up believing plagiarism is “mildly bad but acceptable,” just like sharing MP3 files and bootleg Gossip Girl episodes.

How often do public school teachers plagiarize?  I don’t have any real data, but I’ve recognized chunks of my text on perhaps several hundred syllabi, slides, and handouts.  That might seem like a small number (there are a lot of teachers), but I see the frequency as rather depressing.  They are teachers — of all people on the planet, shouldn’t they be on top of attribution?  You don’t even need to find a special character code: it’s SHIFT + ‘.  Easy peasy.

So some teachers clearly plagiarize (and then post the files on the Internet for the whole world to see).  But why?  Let me allow a teacher to answer that.  The teacher quoted below plagiarized from me several times, excerpting parts of my Designing conference posters page onto her syllabus (no quotation marks or citation).  When I mentioned this to her, she replied,

“You’re absolutely right. Sorry again. It is a good resource and it helps kids, which is why I use it. I can see why you take issue that it is part of my syllabus which is tied to me/my class, but the teaching world couldn’t possibly, on every single document/worksheet/test we give our students, quote or cite source for chunks of information we use to help our students learn things. Education (at least where I teach) moves too quickly to do so, and we already have too much asked of us in and outside of the classroom. But yes, it is a large amount of information taken directly from your site/work.”

On her syllabus are chunks taken from other people, too (you can tell partly because the font and writing style are completely different; again, no quotation marks and no citations).  If students are able to recognize such patchwriting (likely, given it was an Advance Placement course), the students may assume plagiarism is socially acceptable.  If a lot of teachers plagiarize like the above, I think it may explain why so many students in college plagiarize.  It can also explain why they seem so shocked when they get penalized.

The teacher above is using what I like to call the Fair Use Excuse.  “Fair use” is a quasi-official term that describes a clause in the US Copyright Act, and allows people to legally use copyrighted text or images under some circumstances.  But “fair use” does not relate to (or permit) plagiarism, which is when people pass off other people’s text as theirs (no quotation marks, no attribution).  I’ve even had university copyright lawyers try the Fair Use Excuse when I mention that a faculty member has plagiarized me (i.e., copy/pasted my text with no quotation marks, no attribution).  Would teachers accept a “fair use” explanation from their students?  I don’t think so.

The Fair Use Excuse for plagiarism seems especially common among younger teachers, and I suspect they are second-generation plagiarizers who learned how to plagiarize from their teachers, the first generation that started using Powerpoint in class. Powerpoint is the entry drug for chronic plagiarizers.  Soon they moved onto Prezi, then started plagiarizing even their plagiarism statements.

By the way, the teacher mentioned above has a strong (one-sentence) warning about plagiarism in her syllabus — she clearly knows what plagiarism is and views it as academic dishonesty.  (Also by the way, her school’s academic honesty policy is plagiarized from another school.  That’s a different post, which, in fact, I’ve already made.)

So if you are a principal or superintendent, please use your influence to encourage your teachers to model academic honesty.  It’s in the same vein as asking them not to smoke in front of the school, behavior you’d think you didn’t need to explicitly prohibit, but do (you do, right?). Of course, if you’re a typical principal or superintendent, you’re thinking right now, “But my teachers are all great — this is simply not an issue at my school/district.”  And — forgive my bluntness — you’d be delusional.

If you are not a principal or superintendent, but know one, please consider sending this post to them. If you happen to be an education professor in college, you might want to add this issue to your teacher certification program (but that’s just me).

And if you are a student who has just been caught plagiarizing (oopsy!), the above information is your ticket out of the trouble!  Just analyze (via Google search) your teacher’s syllabus (or Prezi slides, or whatever) and document his/her plagiarism.  Then show the results to the principal and argue that your teacher showed you, by example, that it was totally acceptable to copy/paste without attribution.  To further make your case, plug in your school’s academic honesty policy into Google — chances are that your principal plagiarized it from a university web page. If teachers and principals do it (they’re busy!), you can, too (because you’re busier!).

For a great overview of how teachers can better reduce plagiarism in public school, this.  Please also see my page on Preventing Plagiarism, wherein I make a special plea to elementary schools teachers.

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Plagiarism examples

10 famous plagiaristsIf you are in need of a slide showing examples of plagiarism, the one at right might work for you.  My suggestion is to show the image in class and ask students to choose the plagiarist they’d like to hear more about as a way to teach about plagiarism and proper attribution.  Links to full details on all 10 examples are below.  See also my “Preventing plagiarism” page if you want further thoughts on the topic.

  1. H.G. Wells (The Outline of History)
  2. T.S. Eliot (The Waste Land)
  3. Martin Luther King (PhD dissertation, speeches)
  4. Alex Haley (Roots)
  5. Doris Kearns Goodwin (The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys)
  6. Joe Biden (speeches, law school paper)
  7. Michael Bolton (Love is a Wonderful Thing)
  8. Stephen Ambrose (The Wild Blue)
  9. Jane Goodall (Seeds of Hope)
  10. The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research (Symposium Poster Rules and Guidelines)
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Help me defeat the powerful El Guapo

One of the many great scenes in ¡Three Amigos! is the impassioned speech about rising up against the obstacles that all of us face in life. It’s a speech everyone should commit to memory. I like it so much I have the mp3 on my running playlist (right after Moby’s “Extreme Ways”), and my extended family watches the movie every Christmas eve, per tradition. I also play the clip whenever I lecture on how to confront Creationism in science classrooms (it applies, trust me). The movie clip is below, but if it doesn’t play on your device, here’s the sound clip and text. So watch it, and then continue reading below, where I explain why I need help and why you should give it to me.

My personal El Guapo right now is The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research (CPBR, to those in the biotech world). If you read my previous post, you know that they have demanded that I permanently delete my 15-page guide to making scientific posters for meetings (“Designing conference posters“), or else face litigation and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and such. This ultimatum was delivered via Certified Mail from Arnold & Porter, a prestigious law firm. This demand came only after I pointed out that CPBR’s “Call for preproposals” contains 2 1/2 pages of text lifted from my website. If you want to see it, there is a version here (though probably not for long). These 2 1/2 pages not only fail to mention that I am the author, they contain “Copyright The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc.” at the bottom. So, essentially, they have hired one of the most expensive law firms in the world to bully me into giving them the rights to my intellectual property. Some have argued that anything written about scientific posters is boring and not worthy of copyright, but I have been working on the content since 1997 and I rather like it: I have crafted it be a tad irreverent in the hopes that undergraduates might actually read it. So, naturally, I have absolutely no intention of giving my text to CPBR. And I have no intention of letting them get away with the bullying.

This is where you come in. Or could come in, if you want. My personal El Guapo has a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and they apparently have every intention of pursuing litigation. So even though they plagiarized from me, they could ultimately get my site taken down if I run out of money before they do, a likely outcome of the litigation. So how can I defeat El Guapo? I can sew! Actually, that’s true (I own two sewing machines), but that’s not going to help me in this situation, regrettably. The only thing I can do is use this darn blog to defeat them. That’s where you come in. What I’d really appreciate is for people with influence to help advertise this situation so that CPBR feels the scrutiny of taxpayers, and, by extension, the scrutiny of politicians who give CPBR its millions in yearly allocations. That’s right: CPBR is using some of those funds to hire expensive lawyers to file fraudulent copyright infringement claims. If you pay taxes on April 15, you should be outraged. So if you can Tweet this post to your followers, my situation might eventually get known by those in D.C. who vote on such distributions of government funds. And if you don’t Tweet or Facebook, but know important people, please consider calling them. And then email me so that I can properly thank you.

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The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc.

This post is about a non-profit that calls itself the The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc. (www.cpbr.org). It promotes biotech research, and, apparently, has low regard for intellectual property. Or at least for my intellectual property. Read on if you’re interested.

So I have this little page on designing scientific posters, and it’s had maybe 2 million hits in its lifetime. I published it on the internet to help people around the world design a poster for a meeting, and in return I occasionally receive emails, funny postcards, and even baked goods as thanks. It’s a fun page to maintain and keeps me off the streets. And sometimes people hire me to give seminars on poster design, which is fun, too. And I’ve had a book offer, which impressed my mom.

Of course, the page is on the internet so people plagiarize me. When I stumble onto them, I ask the page owner to remove the text. I have “Copyright Colin Purrington” on all my pages, plus verbiage asking people to not steal my stuff, so most plagiarizers comply pretty quickly.

Still, some drag their feet a bit when I issue take-down requests. Some say, “But I rather like your content on my site, and I’d prefer to keep it without attribution.” Another favorite is, “But I’m a teacher and plagiarizing is protected under Fair Use!” (I’m not making this up.) These instances are really annoying, of course, but thankfully rare.

But this week I got the ultimate response, from The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc. in Georgia (I’ll paraphrase): “No, we won’t comply…and instead we will accuse you of plagiarizing us.” In case you don’t know about CPBR, it is an entity that receives millions of dollars each year from the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Then it gives the money to worthy researchers in the form of grants. Part of the granting process involves applicants making posters and presenting them in D.C., hence their need for a section in their application document for how to craft an effective scientific poster — if you happen to have a copy, it’s Appendix 5. The 2 1/2 pages of tips in that section might seem oddly familiar if you’ve ever been on my site (approximately 90-95% similarity…and trust me, it’s not by chance). You won’t be able to easily find a copy of the document on the internet because they have, in red, at the top “Do not post on the internet.” But there are copies on the internet if you look carefully, and I did.

The CPBR’s response wasn’t just an email, either, it was massive package from a fancy lawyer in a fancy suit at a fancy law firm (Arnold and Porter) demanding I take down my page, forever, or face accruing $150,000 in damages plus litigation fees. It probably cost $5,000 just to craft that document. The lawyer’s suit cost probably cost even more.

Anyway, if you have any thoughts on how I should respond to this, please send me an email via the Contact button.

Personally, I’d like (1) a check from them that fully covers my legal costs, (2) a written apology from the CEO that is posted on their home page for 1 year, (3) a message emailed to all past proposal applicants and research directors stating that Appendix 5 was plagiarized from my site, and (4) an all-expense paid trip to St Simons Island, Georgia for me and my family, to compensate us for the pain and suffering that their bullying has caused. And about that last one — we better end up having a damn good time on St Simons Island. No poison in the soup, or anything like that! Or maybe (5) $150,000 in damages, for each of the years that they infringed upon my copyright?? Oh, and (6) it goes without saying that they can never, ever use my material in the future…so if you are on their mailing list and get the next announcement, please send me a copy if you see my text in Appendix 5 again (I’ll send you cookies if you’re the first!). Finally, (8) I think it would be good to have the plagiarizer fired — that amount of plagiarizing in college would get you expelled for a semester, and is equally inexcusable in the private sector…there should be consequences.

Please share this post with others so that The Consortium of Plant Biotechnology Research (Inc) gets all the press they truly deserve. If you are a reporter and are interested in even more details, contact me, maybe?

Screen shot of The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc.
Screen shot of The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc. Dorin Schumacher is the CEO.

By the way, if you’re bored and happen to have a copy of the document, I encourage you to search for the phrase, “intellectual property.” In the most recent version of the document, it’s present 28 times. I think that’s hilarious. Intellectual property is important because many of the proposals funded by CPBR relate to highly secret biotech projects involving member companies (Monsanto, Dupont, etc.). The irony here is too strong to spell out fully. The screen would just crack.

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