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6 consider linguistic evidence




All texts have a particular style that may be thought of as a ‘signature’ or ‘fingerprint’. This style will depend on the purpose of the text and the expertise of the author, both as a writer and as an authority. Any discrepancy of styles between work submitted and the student’s known ability is grounds for suspicion.

Consider two passages from an independent study task submitted for year 12 Design. The first is from the introduction and the second is from the fifth paragraph

Computer chairs are among the most abundantly used article of office furniture to date (along side desks and shelving). With more and more jobs involving computers arise so does the demand for an ergonomic computer chair. ...

... Backrest angle adjustability allows the chair to support different degrees of recline, which in turn transfers some upper-body weight to the chair backrest and lightens the load on the lower back’s intervertebral discs.

The style of first passage is everyday, conversational language with simple structures typical of an inexperienced writer. The second, in contrast, is far more precise and complex with a sequence of consequences and use of specialist language. You do not need to be a forensic linguist to deduce two authors. The teacher who set the task seems oblivious however and made the following comments: ‘sound research – reflection evident – clear understanding’, awarding it 9 marks out of 10! A quick search revealed that, except for the poorly written introductory and concluding paragraphs, the 8 pages were taken verbatim from 3 unattributed websites.

The teacher does not seem to have followed any of the strategies recommended but the real reason this has not been challenged is probably more complex. There is a tendency for some teachers to confine themselves within their specialist area. The belief that language is the sole and exclusive preserve of the English faculty is not uncommon. This manifestly should not be the case as all teachers, whether they acknowledge it or not, are literacy teachers, having a responsibility to teach students to communicate in ways that are powerful, particular and appropriate to their subject. A carryover of this mindset is that many specialist teachers ignore the way content is communicated and linguistics triggers that are clear indicators of blatant plagiarism are missed.

There is a need for teachers generally to increase their awareness of the linguistic markers that are the ‘smoking gun’ of plagiarism. There are a number of features that experienced teachers look for. Plagiarised texts may be taken from authorities including textbooks, journals and reputable sites on the internet. These ‘encyclopaedic’ texts are well structured at the clause, sentence, paragraph and whole text level and are typified by lexical density, extended sentence length, complexity and consistency. Notably, they contrast to the way most students write. ESL learners in particular may have their own patterns of apparently quirky English structures, often influenced by their first language, which can contrast starkly with the flow of ‘borrowings’.




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