Text Laundering

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Mark Liberman at Language Log has come up with a term to describe one of the most idiotic plagiarism techniques I've ever heard of -- text laundering. The usual method is to save time and effort by copying someone else's work and submitting it as your own. But it's so easy to catch people doing that from online materials that some students are masking their trail by substituting words to fool Google, using a thesaurus to find synonyms and so on.

There are at least two problems with this (purely from the perspective of not wanting to get caught). One is that such use of a thesaurus is likely to lead to awkward enough sounding phrases that anyone reading it who is slightly informed will suspect something is up, and creative enough use of Google will easily find the source anyway. At least that's so unless the student is so thoroughgoing to be immune to Google, which would seem to be the point of text laundering. But such Google-proofing would take up so much time that the student might as well have learned enough of the material to begin with to write a competent essay just from class materials. Can you imagine how long it takes to replace every important keyword in a document one is plagiarizing with alternatives from a thesaurus, all of this after having combed Google for sources to begin with and spliced them together into a format that resembles an academic paper enough that they think it will fulfill the assignment? If plagiarizing is supposed to save time, and text laundering is supposed to make the time-saving effort harder to catch, there doesn't seem to be a good way to achieve both goals simultaneously.

8 Comments

See, the reason kids do that though, is not because they want to save time, though sometimes that may be the reason, the real reason is they don't want to use their gray matter. Copy pasting the thesaurus may be alot of work, but it's menial labor. No thought involved.

I think David has a good point. I've had times were I've procrastinated on paper writing by doing a menial task like cleaning my room. Both involve work and both take time, but writing a good paper means that I have to be using my mind a lot more rather than running on autopilot.

Have you ever taken a thesaurus and tried to replace all the important words in a sentence with thesaurus entries with a resulting sentence that still makes sense? It's not exactly thoughtless work. It may be that there's a certain kind of thinking that they're avoiding, but an immense amount of creativity and thought has to go into plagiarism if it's going to be successful at avoiding detection.

"At this point we get into the problem of whether innocent non-blacks should have to pay a penalty in terms of preferential hiring of blacks."
To:
"At this location we get into the quandary of whether guiltless non-blacks should have to pay a price in terms of discriminative employment of blacks."
Using an online thesaurus, it took about three and a half minutes. I did not have to put much thought into it, but I do see your point about how awkward it is.

I work in a college environment. Do you think that the students learn less by copying and pasting? I do!! Though they are still learning because they are having to digest at least some of what they are copying. We need to turn these students into fully thinking and processing adults. We have a "no cheating" policy.. which everyone swears too... I just wonder how much it is adhered too?? Though the students who work for me tell me about all the 20 plus page papers they have too write per class per semester. They say they know of no-one who "cheats". Also, in the summer time we have Language Schools which has a "No English Spoken Here" Policy. Again there is a swearing in process where everyone agrees to not speak any English from the starting point to the end of the summer. It is really intense!! It's tough to plagiarize there!

Jeff, it took 3.5 minutes to do one sentence. Imagine doing a six-page paper. Imagine doing it in a philosophy course where the difference between words a thesaurus lists as synonyms will sometimes amount to a crucial distinction, which makes the resulting sentence false when the original was true.

Ken, you're at one of the higher-end colleges. I would guess that plagiarism is much less a concern there, where the people who had the capability of getting in have learned the value of working hard before getting to college. You're also working with those who need work study, which means many of them are from backgrounds that required them to have jobs even before they went to college. I think the most likely plagiarists are people who don't develop the work ethic that those who hold jobs in high school and get good grades have to have, and the kids you're working with are exactly the opposite.

I've got several methods of avoiding plagiarism in my own teaching. One is to make my students write their papers in the form of dialogues or conversations between people discussing a philosophical issue. It's a lot harder to convert a stolen paper into that format. I also insist on very particularized assignments that are keyed to the exact readings I do and the exact way I cover them in class, which are usually so specific that there's not much out there that will fully answer my questions. They might be able to find sources to help with some of it, but they really need to rely on class handouts to complete the assignment, and I'm intimately familiar with all that, because I wrote it.

I'm not trying to argue that it saves the plagiarizer time, just that it saves them from having to think. You are right that it would not work in some classes like a philosophy course, but I've had assignments (mostly at high school level, two from a community college class I took) where this type of plagiarizing would be easy.

The biggest users of this technique are spammers and "black-hat" practitioners of search engine optimization, who want to automatically create hundreds or thousands of pages linking to porn and gambling sites, or otherwise pulling in viewers from search engines in order sell things or to earn money from selling ads.

They use computer programs to do the thesaurus substitutions, which are needed because random text is detected and rejected by search engines, and so are too-exact copies of pages already out there.

I haven't looked closely at the work of individual plagiarizers who use such techniques, but I suspect that they do most of their rewording free-hand, so to speak, referring to the thesaurus only occasionally.

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