Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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15/6/14: worrying about the 'right' things

One of the things we've been doing at work recently is rolling out the usage of 'TurnItIn'.  When you submit a draft assignment / dissertation / thesis / journal article to TurnItIn, the software matches the writing against an absolutely massive database - anything on the Internet, many journals and, slightly controversially, anything that has been previously submitted to TurnItIn, particularly assignments from previous students.

What is important to note is that, whilst TurnItIn is frequently referred to as plagiarism detection software, it does not directly detect plagiarism, and there are, as far as I can make out, four legitimate reasons for TurnItIn to come back with a match - direct quotations, references (both of which can be filtered out), standard formatting - so previous students will have submitted assignments headed 'Institute of Educational Development, Aga Khan University - and fragments / standard phrases, so I was slighty amused when I ran something through TurnitIn I'd written myself to get a match for 'wrong place at the wrong time'.  As I point out very frequently, the process of obtaining a TurnItIn report is entirely mechanical, whether a match constitutes plagiarism requires a level of human judgement - with a separate judgement required as to whether there is underlying the plagiarism a deliberate intention to deceive, as opposed to a misunderstanding of academic conventions which is overwhelmingly more likely in my experience to date.

(Random parenthetical thought.  As a matter of routine we require our students to include with their dissertations a statement of originality - ie. something like, 'I hereby confirm that what follows is my own unaided work...'    But this statement of originality is itself unoriginal, and so will come back with a TurnItIn match.  I have considered suggesting that part of the requirements of obtaining a masters degree is including an originality statement which is itself original but on balance I don't think this is a good idea.  End of random parenthetical thought).

But the problem here, working with students, is getting them worrying about the right thing.  Some students with the most appalling matches take a 'hakuna matata' (no problem) approach.  Others say, "But 'Chapter 4, results and discussion' has come back as a match, does that mean I have to change it?"  No, it doesn't mean that, no problem that previous students have headed up their chapter with this wording.  Or, "I'm on an 18% match, I'm going to see if I can get it down to 16%" - but no, 18% in itself is not a problem, so long as the matches fit the headings as above.

This idea that we can spend a lot of time worrying about things unnecessarily applies to many other areas.  I was playing as guest organist at St Andrew's again this morning (will have to drop the 'guest' soon at this rate!) and talking to a fellow pianist afterwards, and I was saying that church musicians can often worry about the wrong things - eg. getting everything note perfect, in some settings ensuring there's at least one transposition in the song - when what actually matters - eg. setting a speed and keeping to it, ensuring that the congregation know when to start and stop - can go by the board.  And some excellent work done a few years ago under the heading of 'Bowland maths' which looked to set up high quality project work in lower secondary mathematics classrooms, made the point from a probability point of view that we end up worrying about things which are actually very unlikely - eg. being in an aeroplane crash - and not about things which are far more likely to harm us - eg. accidents in the home.  And what is the point about lying awake at 2am. worrying about an email which needs writing since, when the time comes, it takes just a minute or two?  Not that I would do anything so silly, obviously.....

Of course, our Lord Jesus Christ addressed the issue of worrying (Matthew 6:25-34):

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own"

One might well consider that, from any point of view, this is jolly good advice.  And it raises a very important question: what is the difference between worrying on the one hand, and using our God-given intelligence to think through issues on the other?  I suppose the latter is undertaken without a grinding sense of fear or trepidation, much the same difference as dealing with matters personally or professionally.  To the extent to which we cannot easily take control of ourselves in this matter, let us pray for God's help in learning meaningfully and consistently to sort out matters in our own minds without worry, trusting in God's faithfulness and omnipotence.

And finally, jolly good news!  I succeeded inadvertently in doing the right thing this week!  One of our colleagues got married yesterday and, as is normal in this event, an invitation to make donations (in cash rather than presents) went out a couple of months ago.  Early last week the bride to be offered me an invitation to the wedding, to which I replied that that would be wonderful, thank you, would it be all right just to come to the service itself and not the reception?  Yes, OK, in which case I'll send you a map as to where the church is, and not give an invitation.

I was left feeling that I'd been a bit miserable as far as my colleague was concerned - thing is working on Saturday is pretty normal and weddings do end up entailing a considerable amount of waiting around.  But that was until I was talking to another colleague immediately before the wedding ceremony who explained a number of things which hadn't been clear to me to to that point.  The invitations are limited in number, and are effectively tickets to the evening reception.  Priority is given to people who contribute over a certain threshold.  So for me to contribute and then go to the service rather than the reception means that everybody is a winner!  The bride gets a contribution, the support of a colleague at the ceremony and a friend at her reception.  I get to go to the part of the proceedings I actually enjoy.  And a friend of the bride's - and in all likelihood I'll never discover who this person is - gets to attend the evening reception with an invitation to which I was given first refusal, almost certainly enjoying the event massively more than I would have done.

Isn't that just fantastic?  And the wedding service was superb, as with so many things here, very familiar in some respects, very different in others, much stronger and more immediate communication of enjoyment and love than there is in stiff upper lip British circles.  It's great being out here and able to share in these wonderful events!

6 Comments to 15/6/14: worrying about the 'right' things:

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Laurence on 15 June 2014 17:53
Hi Geoff. I asked an Engineering professor about PhD dissertations and he repeated a neat saying: they should contain "3 original ideas, at least 1 of which is your own". I think that the undue worries that people have about the hand-in of their dissertation are encouraged by the guidelines, which emphasise footnotes, grammar and plagiarism - the attention-to-detail areas - and thus end up containing far less advice about the content of the writing, which is both far more important and far less easy to prescribe. How many late nights have been spent by students obsessing over bibliographies when they could have used their time far better by fixing their introductory paragraphs! Although you don't mention it, I sense your own annoyance at the prospect of you & other academics increasingly losing your own braintime to the routine work of double-checking the false positives spat out by plagiarism-detecting software. I wonder whether these programs and strict rules simply prompt students to become more ingenious at rewording existing ideas. It's interesting to note that Google penalises plagiarism, and that spam websites determined to steal the content of others have responded by employing 'Article-spinning' software that reconfigures syntax in order to bypass the plagiarism detecting algorithms (Worth a read: I wonder if it is inevitable that reactive defence measures get trumped by dedicated attackers - is there a point in the intellectual arms race between attack and defence when defence cannot be cranked up any further because past a certain level the byproducts of defence - increased inconvenience and false positives - become so numerous that the security compromise is no longer worth it? Cast in the battleground of plagiarism, are there always going to be cunning students who get away with submitting modifications of work they find on the internet, because the line between originality and copy blurs? I've read a lot of books on risk and security and the concept that "from a probability point of view that we end up worrying about things which are actually very unlikely" is one of their most common denominators. Researcher Bruce Schneier says that a lot of American security policy is built on fear of 'action movie plots'. Taxpayers spend a huge amount of money on extraordinary pre-flight screen and checks - every passenger must take off their shoes etc - but the spending of millions on such limited areas has the effect of shifting attacks toward less-defended targets, and according to Schneier the result is that we're no safer overall. Yet he adds that the important thing is that people's fears are alleviated, if only because something is being to seen to be done - even if the overall threat and danger of being a victim of terrorism remains exactly the same. The books also love to blame the media, which (to pick an easily quantifiable example) massively overreports deaths from marijuana overdose because they're so rare but underreports deaths associated with the exponentially more lethal drug crystal meth, presumably because few use it and those who do are already marginal people that the media cannot run a leading story about. Of course disparities in reporting like this cause people to miscalibrate their risk calculations by orders of magnitude of up to 100 or more! The only remedy seems to be to read quality books that go straight to the statistics, the science. Other information to complement yours is that you're more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than a shark, and are on average more at risk of serious injury if you ride a horse than if you take an ecstasy pill. If you are the sort of person who wisely chooses to stay away from recreational drugs, then you should really reconsider taking that potentially lethal horse ride too! Several societally normalised activities, including driving a car, turn out to be astonishingly risky (1/80 chance your death will be in a car accident), whereas the chance that you or a friend will be the victim of a terrorist attack is so miniscule and so highly miscalculated that insurers have made ASTRONOMICAL returns on terrorist insurance since 9/11. Laurence
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Geoff on 16 June 2014 22:41
Thank you for contributing, Laurence, by far the longest comment I've ever had! Would be interesting to pick up a range of issues from this when I next see you, meanwhile, just a brief point about TurnItIn. I think of it as matching software rather than anti-plagiarism software, so from this perspective the point about false positives doesn't apply, actually, there's no frustration on my part, I accept the software for what it is. I don't know the detail of the rules under which you work, I can see that TurnItIn can be used to support a situation whereby creativity is stifled. However, used well it does a huge amount to support good academic writing, and that is what we are endeavouring to do. Very happy to discuss this with you further in due course! Meanwhile, have a great summer and an enjoyable final year as an undergraduate, Geoff

Laurence on 17 June 2014 14:42
Hi Geoff. I think I must have misunderstood the nature of the software and conflated your comments on it with some criticisms that I've heard academics give of the marking software that they are obliged to use now. I just wondered that whereas before a lazy student might have got away with copying almost verbatim ideas from a rare book that the marker might not have read/forgotten, the new software would instantly flag such a misdemeanour and this changes the way that potential cheaters cheat! Yes, love to discuss this further with you some time.
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Geoff on 17 June 2014 23:05
Thank you, I like your point about changing how cheaters cheat, as you rightly say, not possible simply to copy from Internet sources any more. Maybe I'll need to worry about this more sophisticated cheating in due course, for the time being, TurnItIn is really helping us raise the bar in academic writing and practice. Best wishes, Geoff

Cyril Tennant on 18 June 2014 04:17
Thanks for another thought-provoking blog. Thanks to my post-retirement I was up with most of it, although somewhat bedazzled by the interchange between nephew and uncle! My thoughts go back to an example of REAL plagiarism. During an Oxford tutorial, the lecturer went across to his bookshelf, took out a book and followed the student's essay word-for-word. But all this begs a bigger question. Is not the wisdom of the past superior to the originality of the present? I suppose the important thing is that this wisdom is understood and assimilated before being recycled!
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Geoff on 18 June 2014 08:56
Thanks, Dad, imagine your masters dissertation and PhD thesis were passed through TurnItIn even if your bachelors work some years before was not! Actually, I'm not sure that you have hit on THE question to ask. However great the wisdom from yesteryear, it is not permissible to reproduce it as one's own work, but very much in the spirit of academic writing to acknowledge other people's work in building one's argument. Very pleased to discuss this with you further, meanwhile, thank you for contributing, Geoff

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