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ChatGPT and the Infinite Plagiarism Loop

by Anne Adkison on 2023-01-24T15:09:00-05:00 in General & Multidisciplinary, Faculty Resources, English Language & Literature | 0 Comments

I’m the Coordinator of Library Instruction, and an instruction librarian by practice. Over the past few years, an increasing number of professors have asked me to directly address plagiarism in their library sessions, and those requests have moved beyond “teach them citation styles” to something arguably more central to the process of writing itself: teach them how to not plagiarize their words. From a librarian frame of mind, one might ask where the line lies between teaching composition and teaching how to document one’s research (through their writing) but let’s set that question aside for now and assume I’m game for this task. My lessons could be extremely short (guys, don’t plagiarize) to consuming the entire session (why are you writing essays in a manner than you consider legitimate but your professors flag as stealing? What’s going on here?). And because the shorter statement leads to frustrated and awkward library sessions, I’ve been diving deeper into this second question. What questions emerge when we don’t understand plagiarism as obvious and black and white? What if the students see real grey area where professors see naked theft?

cover of the book You Look Like a Thing and I Love YouOn November 30th, 2022, Open AI released an advanced chatbot called ChatGPT. Unlike scientist Janelle Shane’s blog AI Weirdness, which documents hilariously botched AI responses to human questions, Chat GPT can produce convincingly humanlike text. Within five days of its release, ChatGPT had a million downloads from users, and within a similar timeframe a million composition teachers started freaking out. An Atlantic article declared that “The College Essay is Dead” while questioning the philosophy of original writing as a human desire as well as the viability of humanities fields that don’t embrace technology. Ironically, perhaps, teachers and professors seem as excited about ChatGPT’s usefulness in cutting their lesson-planning time in half as others are terrified their students will use it. For instance, Brent A Anders wrote a blog post called “How can the ChatGPT AI Help Instructors Teach Essay Writing” describing ways teachers can use it to create lesson plans and writing prompts, followed by pointers on “how can instructors prevent students from using ChatGPT to write essays.” To get extra meta, Anders wrote the entire blogpost using ChatGPT, which might explain why the writing is kind of lifeless? But also—isn’t most writing on the internet lifeless? Here go my hands: wringing.

I think this question of plagiarism (how, why, and why now) needs to be addressed from both angles. Why do students and teachers both yearn to outsource their work to bots, and why does it devastate the human spirit to know a chatbot wrote something we thought was “original”? When I taught a recent library session for a professor on campus, I walked students through the concept of citing paraphrased ideas, and the students found this concept infinitely stickier than direct quotes. They kept asking things like, “but why is SafeAssign flagging my essay that’s paraphrased if I’m allowed to do that?” An aside: is it ironic that SafeAssign is a bot professors use to catch plagiarism? I started realizing in these conversations with students that the value of being able to paraphrase ideas is not obvious to them. When you’re reformulating someone else’s ideas and presenting them, why is it so important that those words be “your own”? And if they’re your own, why do you need to cite them? From a copyright standpoint, the citation probably suffices. But from a pedagogical standpoint, being able to reproduce another person’s ideas in wholly original language does something transformative: it shows that you know the material so well you can recite it while barely glancing at the original text. It means you really learned, which is what the teacher wants to see. From an artistic standpoint, it means you can retain your voice, your personality, your unique and special lens while referencing the world around you.  If students really make their college essays their own, research arms them with facts, bolsters their point of view, engages the collective intellectual conversation, pulls ideas together that would otherwise not co-exist, and ultimately transforms that collection of ideas into a woven artistic tapestry. When this final magical alchemy occurs, the essay has a fingerprint connecting it to the author of the essay. No one else could have done it exactly that way. When writers get really accomplished at this craft, readers can recognize that voice before they even see the name. That’s worth something, right?!

If you are a teaching professor at CSI and you’re reading this hoping a librarian will help you navigate this world, the one where students hire chatbots to craft their essays, you may be getting annoyed with me by now. I haven’t even begun to answer that question! I’m honestly not sure, but here are some ideas that might be helpful:

  1. A college student at Princeton designed a bot that can detect when an essay was written by a bot. It looks for perplexity and burstiness, two attributes found in human writing. This could help you detect AI assignments: NPR
  2. This professor uses AI in her class and openly discusses it with her students, turning the question over to her students as an educational opportunity. Maybe her thoughts could prove useful to you: Jennifer Casa Todd
  3. Teach your students about the dangers of ChatGPT creating false citations! Curtis L. Kendrick, former university dean for CUNY Libraries, asked ChatGPT to write an essay about race and whiteness in the library, and discovered that included citations lead to nowhere. The text ChatGPT uses to create its information does not include academic articles that are not freely available online.
  4. You could also lean in all the way and take these bot-written ways to use ChatGPT to write lesson plans? Sovorel

{Note: I actually didn’t know about ChatGPT’s release when a professor emailed to ask me about it, but thankfully I have smart colleagues. Our web services librarian Valerie Forrestal sent me links to four articles, which are included above. I’m giving her credit because I don’t want to plagiarize my colleague’s bibliography, but also because it would be uncool if I didn’t mention her. Plagiarism is an ethical crime, after all.}

-Anne Hays Adkison

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