Judging Your Originality in a Cut and Paste World

Email a Friend
A group of Elvis impersonators with a World Record.

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:

'Monkey-typing' by New York Zoological Society - Picture on Early Office Museum.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Jason Chu's first name. The text has been corrected. 

Subscribe to Note to Self on iTunesStitcherTuneInI Heart Radio, or anywhere else using our RSS feed. And sign up for our delightful newsletter here.

 

Music Playlist

  1. Vacation to Paraguay Instrumental

    Label: BWN
  2. Librarian Crush

    Artist: Kenneth J Brahmstedt
    Label: BWN Catalog
  3. As Colorful as Ever

    Artist: Broke for Free
  4. Properly Smashed

    Artist: Jack Ventimiglia
    Label: BWN Music
  5. Cufflinks

    Artist: Jack Ventimiglia
    Label: BWN Music
  6. Day Bird

    Artist: Broke for Free
  7. Cylinder Two

    Artist: Chris Zabriskie