Judging Your Originality in a Cut and Paste World

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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. 

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