Judging Your Originality in a Cut and Paste World
Welcome to the only site on the whole World Wide Web with the words: “They were friends forever and lived happily ever after." At least, the only one as far as a giant database of student papers, online texts, and a Google search can tell.
Full credit for originality goes to author Note to Self Producer Alex Goldmark, who spent the past few weeks on a quest to outsmart anti-plagiarism software Turnitin. Turnitin and programs like it are used in a third of high schools and half of colleges nationwide. A student submits their paper through the software, and then it's compared against an ever-growing database of writing (400 million submitted essays to date!), and evaluated with an "originality report." Teachers can see which sections set off warning bells, and a flashing red light goes off if big ideas clearly came from someone else.
It's a pretty air-tight defense against copying and pasting culture, but young adults and their grade-wielding teachers have also learned a lesson of another sort in the process: Phrasing an idea in a completely new way? It's pretty rare, especially when the assignments haven't changed. Basically, plagiarism detection software confirms that sneaking suspicion in the back of your favorite English lit student's mind: You're working through ideas that have been thoroughly worked through, many times before. It has become just about impossible to have a truly new idea.
So, on this week's show, we'll admit, we're not the first to ask it: How important is originality, anyway?
In this episode:
- Sophie Oberfield, teacher at Stuyvesant High School
- Jason Chu, Education Director at Turnitin*
- Jack Howard, writing tutor and student at the University of Missouri
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Jason Chu's first name. The text has been corrected.