Using plagiarism detection software to examine anti-Muslim bias in post-9/11 news coverage

A new sociological study suggests mainstream media sources tended to rely on the rhetoric of certain anti-Muslim groups after 9/11:

“The vast majority of organisations competing to shape public discourse about Islam after the September 11 attacks delivered pro-Muslim messages, yet my study shows that journalists were so captivated by a small group of fringe organisations that they came to be perceived as mainstream,” the paper’s author, University of North Carolina assistant professor of sociology Christopher Bail, told…

Bail and his team used plagiarism detection software to compare 1,084 press releases produced by 120 different organisations with more than 50,000 television transcripts and newspaper articles produced between 2001 and 2008. The software picked up damning similarities between the releases and stories from news outlets including the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Times, CBS News, CNN and Fox News Channel.

“We learned the American media almost completely ignored public condemnations of terrorist events by prominent Muslim organisations in the United States,” Bail told “Inattention to these condemnations, combined with the emotional warnings of anti-fringe organisations, has created a very distorted representation of the community of advocacy organisations, think tanks, and religious groups competing to shape the representation of Islam in the American public sphere.”…

Bail’s paper, published in the American Sociological Review, is part of a wider study which will investigate how the influence of these fringe groups has spread beyond media and in to the real world, where doors have been opened to elite conservative social circles and conservative think tanks — the first steps to influencing public policy and national opinion. Bail touched upon this in the current study after analysing publicly available information on the organisations’ membership, which revealed troubling crossovers between fringe and mainstream organisations.

Four quick thoughts:

1. It sounds like there could be some importance influence of social networks. These fringe groups may be on the edges of public discourse but they have connections or means to which to reach more mainstream media sources. How much of this reporting is built on previous personal connections?

2. This sounds like a clever use of plagiarism software. Such software is intended to catch students in using published material incorrectly but it can also be used to track common quotes, phrases, and narratives.

3. In general, how much does the media today rely on press releases and reports from mainstream or fringe groups without interviews, fact-checking, and sorting through all the information?

4. Would a similar study involving elite liberal social circles and think tanks find similar things?

Claim that Putin plagiarized a sociological monograph disputed by its author

Here is an odd sociological story: ahead of an upcoming election, bloggers accuse Vladimir Putin of plagiarizing a sociological monograph when writing about “ethnic issues” in Russia.

Putin’s article, titled “Russia: The National Question,” was published in the influential daily “Nezavisimaya gazeta” on January 23 and was the second in a series of publications by Putin in the run-up to the March 4 presidential election…

Bloggers, however, allege that approximately one-third of the publication was lifted from a monograph by sociologist Valery Tishkov and two other researchers.

Aleksandr Morozov, editor of “Russky Zhurnal” (Russian Journal), posted the allegations on his blog, generating more than 100 comments and sparking follow-up stories on widely trafficked online news sites like and He spoke to RFE/RL’s Russian Service:

“When I read Putin’s strange article on the national question, I noticed that special terminology was being used that is only used by professional cultural anthropologists — words like ‘socio-cultural code,’ ‘poly-cultural,’ and ‘poly-culturalism.’ There is a standard set of [commonly used] political words such as ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘civil nation.’ But [the language of Putin’s article included] some pretty specialized expressions — even though speechwriters usually watch closely to stop scientific jargon from making its way into political statements by politicians of Putin’s level.”

But in comments to RFE/RL, Tishkov, who is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said he was unconvinced that his work had been plagiarized:

“As for [Putin’s use of] ‘poly-culturalism,’ he also got this a little confused. Everything there is a little vague. The article is sort of eclectic; [it is written in a] purely pre-election style…so that it appeals to everyone who is voting. As for those who aren’t voting, what does he say about them? Migrants… and so on — ‘Are they responsible for everything?’ I didn’t write that kind of book. It is different from this article.”

In this day and age, wouldn’t it be fairly easy for people to determine whether Putin truly plagiarized the monograph or not? Perhaps it is not simply a case of cutting and paste text but rather using reworded ideas that seem to come from another source. Using technical terms doesn’t necessarily mean someone is plagiarizing, particularly if that person could have had plenty of speechwriters or experts write the article or help him write it. It would be a different story for a student who had never shown the ability to use such terms before.

I wonder how much sociological work is plagiarized. From my grad school days, I remember one academic talking about work being plagiarized in other countries and the difficulties one might encounter in trying to reprimand the plagiarizer. Does an increased number of  instances of plagiarism reflect positively on the popularity or value of an idea or text?

When legal copying is illegal (or at least reversible)

Eugene Volokh has a fascinating post re: how much judicial copying is too much:

Cojocaru v. British Columbia Women’s Hospital & Health Center — decided [14 April 2011] by a 3-judge panel of the B.C. Court of Appeal, the highest court in British Columbia — reverses a trial judge’s decision because,

In the case at bar, the reasons for judgment run to 368 paragraphs (105 pages) in length. The trial judge copied, without so acknowledging, 321 paragraphs almost word-for-word from the respondents’ written closing submissions (with inconsequential changes, such as replacing phrases like “it is submitted” with phrases like “I have concluded”). Forty paragraphs were written in the trial judge’s own words and the remaining seven paragraphs contain a mix of passages copied from the respondents’ written submissions and passages written in the words of the trial judge.

Now some sources have characterized the trial judge’s sin as “plagiarism”….

For his part, Volokh thinks the panel was correct to reverse the trial judge, though not because the copying constituted plagiarism:

[A]s the B.C. Court of Appeal panel majority understood it, [the problem] is that a judge is supposed to “independently and impartially considered the law and the evidence and arrived at his own conclusions on the complex issues before him,” and simply adopting hundreds of paragraphs of a party’s papers casts doubt on that. [emphasis added]

While Volokh acknowledges that judicial copying is sometimes appropriate, he still condemns the trial judge’s copying here, noting that

the judicial system tries to balance judicial engagement and efficiency.

I am not sure what to make of this proposed dichotomy between “judicial engagement” and “judicial efficiency”.  Doubtless, these two concepts can be in opposition along a continuum:  the more one “engages” with a case, the less “efficient” one’s decision-making process might be (and vice versa).

Just because “engagement” and “efficiency” can be in opposition, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are.  A judge could be exceedingly inefficient in rendering a decision (e.g., by personally handwriting the entire opinion with her non-dominant hand when both she and her clerk can think and type much faster) and also extremely unengaged (e.g., daydreaming all the while).  The relationship between the two concepts can be quite unclear.

Because of this uncertain logical relationship between “engagement” and “efficiency”, I humbly submit that it makes the most sense to inquire directly into whether the trial judge “engaged” with a case, not to use “copying” as a proxy for “efficiency” as a further proxy for “engagement.”

Indeed, dissenting appellate Justice K. Smith makes just such a direct inquiry here.  Smith turns to the underlying facts of this case to argue that

there are signs in the reasons that the trial judge applied his mind to the issues.

And here is the curious thing:  Justice Smith renders an exhaustive, 106-paragraph analysis of the trial court’s decision in the process of reaching and defending his position.  In stark contrast, majority Justices Levine and Kirkpatrick take merely 22 paragraphs to conclude

that there is no principled basis to deal with these appeals on their merits because the trial judge’s reasons for judgment cannot be considered to represent his reasons, do not meet the functional requirement of public accountability, and do not allow for meaningful appellate review. 

Perhaps I am being too hard on Levine and Kirkpatrick.  Perhaps opinion length is an equally unreliable proxy for engagement.  However, reading through the appellate opinions, I think that dissenter Smith “engages” far more than the majority justices.  His is not the most “efficient” judicial decision, but it does explain its reasoning far more thoroughly (and persuasively) than the majority’s arguably conclusory opinion.

Copying isn’t always bad, as Smith goes to great lengths to explain.  I’d love to hear a robust defense of the opposing position.  Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the anti-copying arguments here come up a little short.

The story behind those who write papers purchased online

Cheating is common in schools and the opportunities to purchase papers online seems to be on the rise. The Chronicle of Higher Education features a testimonial from a “shadow scholar” who tells his story of writing dozens of papers and theses:

You’ve never heard of me, but there’s a good chance that you’ve read some of my work. I’m a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can’t detect, that you can’t defend against, that you may not even know exists.

I work at an online company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month by creating original essays based on specific instructions provided by cheating students. I’ve worked there full time since 2004. On any day of the academic year, I am working on upward of 20 assignments.

In the midst of this great recession, business is booming…

Of course, I know you are aware that cheating occurs. But you have no idea how deeply this kind of cheating penetrates the academic system, much less how to stop it. Last summer The New York Times reported that 61 percent of undergraduates have admitted to some form of cheating on assignments and exams. Yet there is little discussion about custom papers and how they differ from more-detectable forms of plagiarism, or about why students cheat in the first place.

Sounds like we need some more research and figures about how often this particular type of cheating occurs.

There are some interesting thoughts in the comments about who is responsible for all of this and what professors can do about it. The “shadow scholar” suggests that certain segments of the college population are let down by the system and faculty must be burying their heads in the sand when a student can’t express themselves coherently in class and then comes up with an excellent paper. Some of the solutions presented in the comments: get to know your student’s writing very well so you can spot the gaps between their in-class writing and their suddenly strong papers; have students go through a number of drafts that theoretically makes it more difficult to purchase a paper (though “shadow scholar” gives some examples of writing and then revising papers); emphasize writing in schools so students aren’t put in this position where they can’t write.

Several academics question intellectual property and originality

Several professors have recently published books questioning accepted ideas about intellectual property. One professor illustrated his approach in a recent “reading” of his new book in front of a bookstore audience:

But they didn’t hear a single word written by Mr. Boon.

Instead, he read from a 1960s sex manual, an Italian cookbook, and Bob Dylan’s memoir, among others. He had grabbed those books, more or less at random, from the store’s shelves an hour before the event. So why not read from the book he actually wrote? “I didn’t see a need to,” says Mr. Boon, an associate professor of English at York University, in Toronto. That’s because, he says, the same concepts could be found elsewhere, albeit in slightly altered form.

Not coincidentally, that’s the case he makes in his book, In Praise of Copying (Harvard University Press). Mr. Boon argues that originality is more complicated than it seems, and that imitation may be the sincerest form of being human. He writes: “I came to recognize that many of the boundaries we have set up between activities we call ‘copying’ and those we call ‘not copying’ are false, and that, objectively, phenomena that involve copying are everywhere around us.”

He read from the cookbook because recipes aren’t protected by copyright law (unless they contain a “substantial literary expression,” according to the U.S. Copyright Office). He read from the memoir because of Dylan’s liberal borrowings from traditional folk music. And he read from the sex manual because, well, sex is all about reproduction, isn’t it?

While these are just a few academics with books on the subject, it does seem to tap into a growing movement (perhaps led by younger generations?) where originality is redefined as putting existing together in new ways, more of a mash-up than original idea. Whether this will catch on with a larger audience or pass legal muster remains to be seen.

But it does raise an interesting question: how many of our thoughts and ideas are original?

Seeing TV tropes as a kind of programming language

A new season of television is nearly upon us. Some of the new shows will survive, many will not. Most of the shows will draw upon established television tropes. (How many procedural shows do we need??)

In the midst of these tropes, Scott Brown of Wired suggests we shouldn’t expect novelty but instead should look for something else:

But here’s an original thought. Let’s embrace the standard semantics of tropery—let’s stop seeing a welter of clichés and instead call it what it is: a programming language. The site [] was launched by a computer programmer, and the coder’s ethos comes through: Seeing all of TV (and film and literature and theater and manga) history written in Trope, you begin to understand how these story widgets—standard, reusable parts like phonemes or Legos or the basic codons of DNA—can be arranged and rearranged to create something unique.

This is an interesting perspective – instead of focusing on what is being repeated, viewers should examine how writers and producers use their creativity to rearrange the existing pieces of the existing television corpus.

This article reminds me of some other recent news, particularly that about college students and plagiarism. What some research has found is that some students have difficulty accepting the argument for intellectual property; they see content as sharable and open. What matters more then is taking existing content and putting it together in new ways.

Brown suggests “originality is dead.” I hope not. But perhaps taking his advice will make watching similar-but-slightly-different television shows more palatable.

Plagiarism in the Internet age

The New York Times reports on how getting information from the Internet has changed students’ perceptions about plagiarism:

It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.

Anthropologist Susan D. Blum studied students at the University of Notre Dame and came to this conclusion regarding attitudes toward authorship:

She contends that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking.

If so, this is an interesting change. It suggests the concept of individualism is changing from one where a person develops unique ideas to one where individuals are creative with existing material.

Perhaps this generation tends to think information on the Internet (and other creative material) is common knowledge. One traditional rule about avoiding plagiarism has to do with common knowledge; if it is widely known, then no citation is needed. What is being confused then is the ease in which the information can be obtained versus whether it has an author. It is true that it is often easy to do an Internet search and find something out. That does not mean that the information is known to all – easy access does not equal common knowledge.

It seems like the best course would be for students to cite all external sources, even if a student thinks it is common knowledge.

Discussing academic cheating

The New York Times holds a discussion about the epidemic of cheating that includes two teachers (one college, one high school) and a recent college graduate. Interesting perspectives.

More from the college professor in the discussion at The Chronicle of Higher Education.