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Stob latest: It was a cunning trick, says Open University

Pull the other one

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Pardon our scepticism, we told Mr Prior – but wasn’t this a touch convenient? If it was a "trick question" all along, then the proof would be in the marking.

"Would we give a mark to someone who eulogised the article? No,” he replied.

Well there’s one way to find out, we suggested. Why not crack open the marking of Question 2, M885, which would confirm that anyone who failed to spot the trick question had failed.

We’re still waiting for that request to be fulfilled.

We have, however, a strong piece of evidence to suggest that the explanation Mr Prior was asked to pass on to The Register was a misleading, post-hoc piece of damage limitation.

Based on his discussions with the course staff, Mr Prior told us that he was confident that the student, having spotted the irrelevant gibberish, passed Question 2 with full marks. By offering an analysis that the paper was garbage, Verity Stob would have been "right on the money", Mr Prior told us.

In fact, Verity spotted the irrelevant gibberish, noted it in her reply, and received no marks at all. Here's an extract from Verity Stob's reply to Question 2:

After long consideration and much agonising, I am declining to answer this question. My belief is that a large part of this paper is written as deliberate gibberish, designed to deceive superficial readers into believing that they somehow "aren’t quite following" what is going on. This belief is objectively supported by the jumbling of one of the stolen passages before insertion into the paper’s text, as detailed in the PDF I have sent to the OU. But actually I suspect that much larger portions of the paper were generated in this manner. I’d draw your attention to the ‘Customization requirements’ section of the ‘five critical issues’ in the paper, which is not something I can show to be plagiarised. I think this is a particularly striking example.

I could fairly easily create answers to these questions by extracting short, key phrases and contriving to include ideas presented on this course. I feel that to do this would make me a party to the deceit, or at least to a certain level of complacency about an immoral practice. I don’t think it is acceptable to write essays in this way.

Or, there again, I could answer the questions without reference to the paper, and attempt to save at least some of my marks. But then why should I lose any of them, for being, as I see it, true to my standards? It seems to me that only an all-or-nothing stance makes sense.

Contrary to what Mr Prior had been told, Verity Stob's answer forfeited all 15 marks. Someone is being economical with the truth.

Loose ends

There are two footnotes to the ongoing story. We contacted Tony Byrne, editor of CMS Watch, whose 2003 article had provided source material for Madanmohan and De’s plagiarized text. What did he make of all this, we wondered. “I don't know quite what to think about it. First reaction to the plagiarism was annoyance, but then mostly amusement,” he mailed us.

As readers have noted, this paper is conspicuously absent from the many published works listed at the website of co-author, Rahul De. Was this forgetfulness, shame or did he know anything about the paper? We mailed him, inviting him to confirm that he was aware of the paper’s existence – but have yet to receive a reply.

Meanwhile, until we can see the marking for the answers handed in – the Open University can maintain what appears to be a highly convenient cover story. It may just be digging itself in deeper. ®

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