That Time I Authored an Economics Paper I Never Actually Wrote
@replyall A kid in CO faced a disciplinary hearing bc he “plagiarized” something that I, a librarian in NYC, “wrote.” (P.S. – I didn’t.)
— Emily Gover (@edtechjam) January 4, 2016
How did this all unfurl? It begins on a cold winter day, many
moons weeks ago. ‘Tis a story of technological quirks that serve as a reminder that even the most powerful of technologies make mistakes.
One day in mid-December, I started my day with a tweet from a young man in Colorado, telling me he had been accused of plagiarizing something that I wrote… for his 300-level Economics course. While I love listening to Marketplace (and have an unhealthy adoration for Kai Ryssdal), I’m no econ expert. This young man received a couple of emails from his professor, demanding the contact information for one Emily Gover, so he can reach out regarding her involvement.
He was reaching out to me to see if I would be willing to email his professor to explain that, no, I haven’t written a paper for this kid and yes, plagiarism detection services like SafeAssign can be incorrect. He didn’t check his school email frequently, and as a result, the allegedly plagiarized paper was under investigation by his university, and he was subject to a disciplinary hearing. D:
So wtf happened? Weeks went by and I heard nothing, until a few days ago.
The short story: Everything is a-okay. The long(er) story: The paper was required to be formatted in APA, and, like many college students, this young man did not have the knowledge, time, or patience to deal with the minutiae of formatting it by hand. So, he used a popular tool, Citation Machine, to help. It has an APA title page generator.
My current employer owns Citation Machine, and guess who worked with the developers to properly format title page templates?
When I was providing examples to our devs of how the APA formatting should look, they requested them as a Word document. The metadata in Word docs pull information from the computer—registered under my name—to assign a “document owner.” Given that APA title pages are annoying AF to put together (running headers? Ain’t nobody got time fo’ that), the student used Citation Machine to create his title page, downloaded it to his computer, and worked on his paper from there.
So, when time came to submit it, and the professor ran it through plagiarism detection software, guess what it picked up? My name tied to the “owner” document, and therefore, according to this technology’s logic, the original creator of the paper.
Fortunately, the school determined that this poor kid did not, in fact, plagiarize an economics paper originally written by Emily Gover. But HOLY HECK, what a story.
I quickly made a ticket in GitHub to fix the error, and this was the response from my colleagues:
It makes for a curious story to tell, and reminds me of many of the great and quirky stories told on Reply All and Note To Self. If you haven’t checked out these podcasts, do it! They explore a variety of topics focused around how tech and The Internet of Things is shaping our lives–for better and worse.
PJ Vogt of Reply All even followed up with me on Twitter, and I filled him in on the deets (as much as one can in a handful of tweets, anyway), which left me feeling slightly fangirly.
Of course, this speaks to a larger conversation of the role of ed tech in the lives (and academic livelihoods) of students. Tools like Turnitin are so ubiquitous in education, but this is a prime example of how even the most honest of students can get caught in its “all-knowing” grip.
The student will likely receive a passing grade, and our devs have already deployed a fix. Hopefully this is the first and last time such a bizarre glitch happens, although at this point, who knows? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯