The Case of the Billion-word Essay

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Case Studies

Imagine that you are employed as a "reader" for a university professor who assigns each semester a billion-word essay to be written out in longhand. It is your job to screen the essays submitted for any hint of plagiarism and, where possible to determine who has copied from whom.

One semester you read an essay that seems very much like another you have read. Comparing the first three pages of the two papers you find that they are completely identical. But on page 13 of one essay (#1) you find the word "organic" and the word "orgasmic" in the same place on the other essay (#2). In context "organic" make sense, but "orgasmic" is riscible.

Q:

What is your initial conclusion?

Q:

Reality check: How long would it take to copy out a billion-word essay, assuming you wrote at a rate of one word a second?

Later you come across another seemingly identical paper (#3). This one not only has the organic/orgasmic error on page 13, but also a substitution of "erratic" for "erotic" on page 20, a change of "historical" to "hysterical" on page 33 and "mitosis" in a place on page 37 where only "meiosis" would make sense.

Q:

What do these observations suggest?

The next paper (#4) you read is just like #3 except it doesn't have the mitosis/meiosis error. Yet another essay (#5) reveals all of the errors found in #4 except for the erratic/erotic substitution. And finally, essay #6 contains the following errors: organic/orgasmic; erratic/erotic; hysterical/historical; and a substitution of "feces" where only "theses" would make sense, even in an essay on political philosophy .

Q:

Who copied from whom?

Q:

Can you construct a "family tree" showing the relationships among the various essays submitted?

The errors noted would be annoying even to a reader not concerned with plagairism, but in most cases the reader would still be able to make sense of the sentences and paragraphs in which they occurred. The essay might still "work." These errors are like the neutral mutations that arise over time in the genome of any organism, although this example is more like such occurances as they are found in asexually reproducing organisms which have only a single parent.

Q:

What organisms reproduce only asexually? Remember also The Case of the Less-than-hostile Take Over.

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Can you see the parallel between the billion-word essay being passed down from one student to another with changes accidentally introduced along the way and generations of organisms passing on mutations and changes that accumulate with time?

Q:

What connection do you see with Darwin's phrase, "descent with modification?"

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