How To Fool A Plagiarism Detector

By Neuroskeptic | April 17, 2014 4:25 am

Should you trust plagiarism detection software?

In my view, no – we should never treat an automated plagiarism report as definitive evidence, whether positive (as proof of plagiarism) or negative (as proof of innocence.) These tools are useful for rapidly screening texts to raise red flags, but once a suspicion is raised, only old-fashioned manual checking can determine originality or otherwise.

In this post I’ll explain why – but first, a little backstory.

Five months ago, I argued that certain materials published by a new British ‘research ethics organization’, called PIE, contained similarities to other, uncited sources. For more on PIE, see these posts.

Shortly after I posted, PIE put up a Disclaimer. In the past week they’ve gone on the defensive again with a blog post which, while not naming me, is clearly aimed in my direction. (The comment thread is quite entertaining.)

This is where those plagiarism detectors come in. In their “Disclaimer”, echoed in the blog post, PIE report that all of their text is rated as original by two automated plagiarism checkers: Grammarly and IThenticate.

I have no doubt that that’s true, but it doesn’t impress me much. Most of these detectors rely on spotting strings of text that are identical between two sources. So they can pick up naked copy and pasting, but they can be fooled quite easily.

All a hypothetical plagiarist needs to do, to evade such software, is to make sure that no more than, say, any given three or four consecutive words are identical to their source. So they can copy and paste, so long as they, let’s say, change the word order a bit, add or remove some filler words like ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘but’, and replace a few words with synonyms. I call this text laundering.

To show how easily text could hypothetically be laundered, I took some of PIE’s own text (from here)

PIE Original: You are invited to join the Publication Integrity and Ethics (herein referred to as PIE) as one of its founding members. PIE, a not-for profit organisation, offers free membership to all interested individuals. Please join us and become part of this exciting new movement in the world of publishing ethics; it is the professional home for authors, reviewers, editorial board members and editors-in-chief.

Now let’s copy, paste, wash and rinse…

Neuroskeptic: You are invited to join Publication Integrity and Ethics (herein referred to as PIE) and become one of its founding members. PIE, a not-for profit organisation, offers interested individuals free membership. Please join this exciting new movement in the publishing ethics world; PIE is the professional home for reviewers, editorial board members, authors, and editors-in-chief.

If that’s not plagiarism, I don’t know what is. But Grammarly’s verdict? “The text in this document is original.”


Importantly, Grammarly does ring the plagiarism alarm if you enter PIE’s original text. This proves that PIE’s website is part of Grammarly’s database of sources. So the software should have detected my ‘plagiarism’. But it didn’t. This is why I always take these tools with a pinch of salt, and why I’m not impressed by PIE’s Disclaimer (although please note – I have never accused PIE of ‘plagiarism’. They introduced that word into this discussion, not I. I just talk about similarities.)

There are other lessons to learn from this saga. Consider, for instance, that a few days ago, PIE released an new bit of their disclaimer, “Examined Documents“. They now say that

Our authors have examined several documents at the time of writing the contents of the Publication Integrity & Ethics [PIE] website and its guidelines. Hence, it is natural that we include the list of these documents as our references. Please see the list.

It is indeed ‘natural’ for authors to reference their sources, but it seems that for the first few months of the site’s existence, they didn’t do so. Which I guess made them… unnatural?

Anyway, the list vindicates what I said in my very first PIE post: I said that some of PIE’s content was similar to the Australian Press Council’s newspaper guidelines, and publisher Elsevier’s editorial policies – and they now reference both of those sources. If they’d only done that from the start, I wouldn’t have written my post.

The lesson here? Acknowledge your sources from the start. Because the longer you leave it, the worse your eventual climbdown will look.

But something is conspicuous by its absence from PIE’s reference list: any mention of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines. Yet as I said previously, several areas of PIE’s work appear similar to COPE’s .

Consider the PIE Peer Reviewer Guidelines. The last bit of PIE’s document (parts 7.1-8.5) consists of 16 points. In my estimation, the same ideas all appear in a section of COPE’s Guidelines for Peer Reviewers. The wording differs somewhat (though in many cases, only slightly), but the content is essentially the same.

Crucially, the 16 ideas appear in exactly the same order in both documents – despite the fact that the COPE document also contains additional statements with no PIE equivalent, interspersed among the ones that are similar. If we designate the PIE statements in order as A-P, we find that the COPE equivalents also appear in the order A-P.


How odd. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. How much of a coincidence? Well, to calculate the number of possible ways to order a given number of items (permutations), we need the mathematical factorial function, written as X! There are X! ways to order X items. 16! = 2.09*10^13 so there are about 20 trillion unique orderings of those 16 items.

So it’s quite a big coincidence, then. Why might PIE not want to credit COPE? We can but speculate. Perhaps the fact that PIE seems to be in direct competition to COPE might be relevant: they’re both organizations with “Publication” and “Ethics” in the title, who offer a set of best-practice guidelines for academics and academic publishers. Although COPE has been around for 17 years not 5 months.

It might be embarrassing to admit a debt to ones rivals… but it’s more embarrassing not to admit it. So this is the final lesson here: there’s nothing wrong with being influenced by your predecessors: no-one will care, if you’re transparent about it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, funny, PIE, select, Top Posts, Uncategorized

Brain Scans: Don’t Throw Out The Baby With The Dead Salmon

By Neuroskeptic | April 11, 2014 2:48 am

Is neuro-skepticism in danger of going too far? Is it time to take a critical look at critiques of neuroscience?

Read More

Are The Mafia Psychopaths?

By Neuroskeptic | April 3, 2014 2:26 pm

The view that the Mafia is an organization of especially ruthless psychopaths is wrong – in fact, members of ‘Cosa Nostra’ have lower psychopathic traits than other criminals.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, law, mental health, papers, select, Top Posts

Time Rolls On, Even Without Memory

By Neuroskeptic | April 1, 2014 5:17 pm

A fascinating paper asks what one man with no memory – and no regrets – can really teach us about time: Individuals With Episodic Amnesia Are Not Stuck In Time.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: papers, select, Top Posts

The Ugly Ducklings of Science

By Neuroskeptic | March 26, 2014 5:45 pm

A group of management researchers provide new evidence of a worrying bias in the scientific process – The Chrysalis Effect: How Ugly Initial Results Metamorphosize Into Beautiful Articles ( via Retraction Watch )

Read More

The Explosive Brain

By Neuroskeptic | March 22, 2014 5:59 am

A few months ago, I blogged about The Hydraulic Brain – an unorthodox theory which proposed that brain function is not electrical, but mechanical. On this view, neuroscientists have it all wrong, because nerve impulses are in fact physical waves of pressure that travel down neurons as if the brain were made up of billions of little water pipes.

That was wacky. But I’ve just come across a hypothesis so bizarre, it makes the hydraulic brain look positively down to earth. Here’s the paper, just published in Medical Hypotheses: Percussion circuits and brain function

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: bad neuroscience, papers, select, Top Posts, woo

From Neo-Fascism To Neurophysiology: The Strange Story of the INPP

By Neuroskeptic | March 16, 2014 8:14 am

Will Mandy drew my attention to a worrying piece of neurosensationalism at BBC News:

Modern life damaging infant brains, charity warns

The charity is called Watch? and it seems fairly inoffensive, but one of the speakers at the Watch? conference (which prompted the article) is Sally Goodard Blythe from the ‘Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology’ (INPP) in Chester, England. This latter organisation has a rather remarkable history.

brain1The INPP’s About Us page says

The INPP was set up in 1975 by Psychologist Peter Blythe PhD*. to research into the effects of immaturity in the functioning of the central nervous system on learning outcomes, emotional functioning and behaviour.

That * leads us to a footnote which reads

INPP is an apolitical organization. It does not reflect or support any political, cultural, social or religious ideology or the personal views of its members or former members.

Well, that’s good to hear. Because if they did reflect the ideology of their members, let’s say, of their founder, then they would be a fascist organization. Quite literally. For, according to his Telegraph obituary, their late founder Peter Huxley-Blythe (his full name) was an active neo-fascist:

A vehement anti-communist who admired strong leadership, after WW2 Huxley-Blythe became involved in various extreme-Right groups. He became an associate of the American political thinker Francis Parker Yockey, founder of the European Liberation Front (ELF, a small neo-fascist group that split from Mosley’s British Union Movement in 1948), and of Guy Chesham and Baroness von Pflugl who helped to finance the publication of Yockey’s Imperium (1948), in which he argued for the creation of a fascist united Europe to defend Western culture.

The ELF’s “12-point plan” demanded “the immediate expulsion of all Jews and other parasitic aliens from the Soil of Europe” and the “cleansing of the Soul of Europe from the ethical syphilis of Hollywood”. Huxley-Blythe became the editor of Frontfighter, the ELF’s journal, and later on, in the 1950s, published the newsletter of a British-German group Natinform (Nationalist Information Bureau)…

In addition, with Roger Pearson, he helped to organise the Northern League, a neo-Nazi organisation dedicated to saving the “Nordic race” from the “annihilation of our kind” and to fighting for survival “against forces which would mongrelise our race and civilisation” (leading members included the former Nazi eugenicist Hans Günther)…

…Peter Huxley-Blythe is survived by his wife, Sally [Goddard Blythe, current director of INPP International].

Still, that was a long time ago. Perhaps we should instead judge the INPP by their current supporters. Unfortunately, there are a number of eyebrow-raising individuals associated with the INPP. In recent years, their conference has hosted speakers such as…

* Dr Richard Halvorsen, a British doctor who writes about vaccines causing autism.

* Dr Ursula Anderson, a writer on ‘energy medicine’ and spiritual issues: e.g.

If we are to allow the human soul to dwell within its connection to the creative mind of God, it is self evident that society must turn its attention to children because their energies are the most susceptible to change.

She also believes that Energy and Memory are what give stem cells their power:

In a sentence, the ability of stem cells to re-generate, re-engage and re-organize damaged structures of FORM and FUNCTION are directly dependant on the templates of Memories and the Energies that give life to and drive Body, Mind and Soul.

* “Dr.” Curtis T. Cripe, “PhD.” , or Mr. Cripe as the US Bankruptcy Appeals Court of the Ninth Circuit (judgement of 20th Feb 2014) more accurately calls him:

[In 2001] the Cripes [Mr. Cripe and his wife] represented … that Mr. Cripe held a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of California at Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in Psychology from Saybrook Institute…

[however] although Mr. Cripe ultimately did obtain a Ph. D. in November 2003, that degree was from Barrington University, a non-accredited school. Mr. Cripe’s faculty advisor for his dissertation in psychology held degrees in Interior Design, not psychology. Mr. Cripe’s “attendance” was completely on-line.

When Cripe’s business partner found out about this, around 2008, she broke off relations with him. This set in motion a series of legal claims and counterclaims, the outcome of which was that Cripe filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011. Cripe spoke not once but twice at the INPP conference, in 2007 and in 2009. He’s also listed on some websites as a representative of the INPP franchise in the USA.

Oh dear. But then again, just because INPP are linked to some dubious people, that doesn’t mean that their ideas are wrong. Their idea is that many childhood problems (including ADHD, Asperger’s, difficulty riding bikes, and problems learning maths) can be caused by ‘neurodevelopmental delay’ (NDD), a failure of the maturing brain to appropriately inhibit the primitive motor reflexes, seen in babies, that are normally switched off later in life. INPP offer ‘interventions‘ (prices: by request only) to try to fix these imbalances.

I will leave it to others to evaluate these claims – perhaps neuroblogger and developmental psychologist Prof Dorothy Bishop, who wrote about Sally Goddard Blythe and her claims about parenting previously. Bishop wrote that…

Mrs Goddard Blythe is entitled to her views. My concern is with the blurring of the distinction between opinion and evidence. When a view about effects of parenting is widely promulgated on national media, and is expressed by someone who is described as a consultant in neurodevelopmental education and Director of an Institute, the natural assumption is made that (a) they are speaking from a position of authority, and (b) they have some hard evidence. In this case, neither appears to be true.

A link to that article appears, strangely, on the INPP’s website, and even more strangely it appears under the heading “Published articles by Sally Goddard Blythe”.

The Power of Conscious Intention Proven At Last?

By Neuroskeptic | March 15, 2014 10:40 am

A neuroscience paper published before Christmas draw my eye with the expansive title: “How Thoughts Give Rise to Action

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: EEG, papers, philosophy, select, Top Posts

Can A Computer Measure Your Mood? (CAT Part 3)

By Neuroskeptic | March 12, 2014 5:41 pm

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, I examined the story of the Computerized Adaptive Test – Depression Inventory (CAT-DI).comp_psych

Touted as a revolutionary new way of measuring depression, the CAT-DI is a kind of computerized questionnaire, that assesses depressive symptoms by asking a series of questions about how the user is feeling. Unlike a standard questionnaire, however, the CAT-DI is adaptive because it picks which question to ask next based on previous responses.

The CAT-DI’s creators have said that the commercial release of the product (and related CATs) is under consideration.  They’ve formed a company, Adaptive Testing Technologies (ATT). This commercial aspect has led to fierce controversy over the past few weeks, with accusations of conflicts of interest against some very senior figures in American psychiatry. It was this aspect of the story that I focused on previously.

Now, I’m finally going to delve into the statistics to find out: does it really work?

Read More

The Wit and Wisdom of Psychology Abstracts

By Neuroskeptic | March 8, 2014 3:42 am

The abstract to a scientific paper is a brief summary of the content. The start of an abstract, in turn, serves to introduce the subject of the research.

This is fine for most kinds of science, but in the case of psychology (and parts of neuroscience) it can produce some rather odd results. In these fields, the topic of much research is everyday human behaviours and experiences. How do you introduce something that everyone already knows about? How do you make the commonplace sound like a scientific problem?

Well… it’s hard. Hard to do it without sounding like a cross between Spock and Captain Obvious. So that’s often what ends up happening. I thought I’d compile some of my favourite examples of this genre into one compendium of wisdom. Presenting… the Psychology Abstract’s Introduction to Life.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: evopsych, funny, papers, science, select, Top Posts

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


No brain. No gain.

See More

@Neuro_Skeptic on Twitter

Collapse bottom bar

Login to your Account

E-mail address:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »