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Help with Microsoft Word doc "properties"
February 22, 2012 9:52 PM   Subscribe

What kinds of document-editing scenarios produce the time and date information stored in "Properties" for a Word document? Regarding a college student's fishy paper submission.

I reluctantly suspect a student of handing in a paper that appears to have been written a year ago for a different class, based on personal intuition and the "Properties" feature on his electronically-submitted paper, and I want to be absolutely sure that the scenario I'm imagining is likely before I decide to confront the student and/or any disciplinary authorities about this.

I teach an English course as at a university in the US. A student handed in via email a paper that raised red flags for me because while it discussed the right work of literature, it did so in a way that had absolutely nothing to do with the approach of the course or any of the things we had been discussing in class. (Let's say the course is on "law and literature" and that we read Measure for Measure with that framework in mind; this student's paper was indeed on Measure for Measure but had nothing to do with law. Stu Dent also didn't clear a different topic with me in advance.).

Out of curiosity I looked at the "Properties" feature of Stu's Word document, and under "Printed" it says March 25, 2011. I know Stu has studied Measure for Measure before, and I think it is likely that Stu has simply turned in a paper he wrote for a course last year. Measure for Measure is taught repeatedly in many courses every semester at this school. (Turning in the same paper for two different courses is also expressly prohibited by the school's academic code).

What makes me hesitate in jumping to this conclusion is my uncertainty about what the "Properties" feature can really tell you; the "Properties" for Stu's paper seem self-contradictory, for instance. It says, in its entirety:
Created: Sunday, Feb 19, 12:40pm
Modified: Thursday, Feb 23, 2012 12:39am [this is me, having opened the document]
Printed: Friday, March 25, 2011 12:56am
Last Saved By: Stu Dent
Revision number: 4
Total editing time: 13 minutes

Other info: Stu emailed his paper to me at 12:56pm on the same day the document was created, that is, 16 minutes after it was "created."

How could the time/date in "created" occur after the time/date in "Last Printed"? What kinds of composition scenarios could produce a document that has only been "edited" for 13 minutes? I assume a cut and paste?

I'd be grateful for any sort of clarification about how reliable the information under Properties is, and also for explanations of what kinds of composition scenarios are reflected in Properties. Thanks.
posted by ms.codex to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I apologize if this doesn't directly answer your question: is it possible to get access to papers that were submitted to the Measure for Measure class?

This could definitively answer your suspicions. While perhaps unlikely, it's possible that the student's clock was wrong on their computer (more than once).

Regardless of Stu Dent's possible violations of policy, it sounds as if you have ample excuse to mark his paper poorly regardless (as it did not have the focus that you were looking for in the class).
posted by el io at 10:08 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


On my copy of Word (Office 2010), saving a file with a new name blanks resets all of the Created, Modified, and Total Editing Time fields. So a file that had several hundred minutes of editing time, shows as 0 minutes when I save it as a new name. This could be a scenario where the student had a working copy, and saved it as a fresh name prior to submitting it. I do that sort of thing myself frequently. That being said, all the other evidence makes that seem unlikely.

Have you tried googling any key / unusual phrases from the paper to see if any original pops up?
posted by machinecraig at 10:08 PM on February 22, 2012


I just pulled up a Word document that I created On the 16th February. Properties are:
Created: Thursday 16th February 2012 9:06 AM
Modified: Friday, 17th February 2012 2:22 PM
Printed: Friday, 17th February 2:15 PM
Last Saved By: unliteral
Revision number: 18
Total editing time: 173 minutes

Then I did a 'Save As' and the properties now are:
Created: Thursday 23rd February 2012 4:59 PM
Modified: Thursday 23rd February 2012 4:59 PM
Printed: Friday, 17th February 2:15 PM
Last Saved By: unliteral
Revision number: 2
Total editing time: 2 minutes

So, a 'Save As' maybe is what happened.
BUSTED!
posted by unliteral at 10:09 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure it really matters. It sounds like you have enough to return the paper as unacceptable.

The "printed on" date is really the clincher. While there are convoluted ways to make that happen none of them are really possible given all the other evidence. (That you know Stu wrote a paper on the subject before, and you know that Stu didn't write a paper with the proper focus this time.)
posted by Ookseer at 10:19 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


is it possible to get access to papers that were submitted to the Measure for Measure class?


Unfortunately, too many teachers teach Measure for Measure in too many different classes at this school.

Have you tried googling any key / unusual phrases from the paper to see if any original pops up?

I don't think Stu plagiarized anything from the internet; I just think he may have submitted his own paper twice.

The "printed on" date is really the clincher. While there are convoluted ways to make that happen none of them are really possible given all the other evidence.

I do wonder about this-- I occasionally start Word documents and then completely repurpose them for something else, in which case it would be conceivable that a previously printed doc would be filled with something new.

But you're right, it seems like there's enough reason to ask Stu to rewrite the paper; I'd just like to come to a decision about whether or not to accuse him (god, that sounds awful) of violating the school's cheating policy, which I take seriously.

Thanks for the replies, everyone. More responses welcome.
posted by ms.codex at 10:27 PM on February 22, 2012


I guess, I don't see why it matters whether or not the paper was for another class, unless you don't think it was their paper. It's not exactly plagiarism to turn in the same paper twice, just stupid.

Why not just give it a bad grade since it has nothing to do with the topic? Why worry about turning them in for turning in their own work?
posted by zug at 10:28 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I do wonder about this-- I occasionally start Word documents and then completely repurpose them for something else, in which case it would be conceivable that a previously printed doc would be filled with something new.

I do this all the time, and it totally messes with the datestamps.
posted by desuetude at 10:29 PM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's not exactly plagiarism to turn in the same paper twice, just stupid.

It's classified as "cheating/plagiarism" at this particular university, although I agree, I don't think it's as bad a violation as copying someone else's work.

Why not just give it a bad grade since it has nothing to do with the topic? Why worry about turning them in for turning in their own work?

Yeah, I'm leaning towards this. On a personal (and perhaps inappropriate) note, I'm just so disappointed and depressed that Stu didn't find the fairly unique and innovative angle of the class compelling enough to write a paper that employed it. If Stu did indeed submit a paper he had already written previously, he didn't do so out of last-minute desperation; he emailed it to me many hours before it was due.
posted by ms.codex at 10:37 PM on February 22, 2012


The evidence put forward by unliteral shows a couple interesting points. First, that when a document is "save as"ed the Created and Modified fields are reset, but the Printed and Total editing time fields are NOT!

My initial reaction was that Stu took a previously written essay, started by resaving it with a new name, and then spent 13 minutes editing it to look nice and new.

This cant be the case though, because as we can see from unliterals first example, a resaved file maintains its Total editing time. The only way the file could have those Printed and Total edit times is if back in 2011 the student wrote this for another class, in either a different editor, or a different file, copy-pasted into this new file, printed it, didnt touch it for a year, then resaved it with its new name and finished editing it all with less then 13 minutes in the file. This is both totally possible, but it seems like a lot of effort and fore thought put into not writing one essay. Either way the fact that it was printed last year seams a little fishy.

I occasionally start Word documents and then completely repurpose them for something else, in which case it would be conceivable that a previously printed doc would be filled with something new.

Another possibility is if Stu wrote the (admittedly off topic) essay in a different file, and then copy pasted it into this new file, that he printed back in '11, but the file would have to a) be so trivial that he could copy over it with this new essay, but b) importent enough that he saved it for the last year, all without having had it open for more then the critical 13 mins.
posted by KeSetAffinityThread at 10:39 PM on February 22, 2012


Just as a datapoint, I send a lot of Word docs back and forth for work. On more than one occasion, I've had all sorts of weird time/date stamps show up in properties, track changes, and comments--including things like responses dated before the person responding was sent the document, file properties claiming that the file was created anywhere from a few days before it actually was to decades earlier--in one memorable instance, Word steadfastly insisted that the document had been created in 1911. My time machine sure is spiffy!

I agree that this totally looks suspicious, but based on my experience with Word datestamps, I wouldn't call it a smoking gun.
posted by MeghanC at 11:36 PM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


I sometimes get multiple windows working, edit, write new copy, cut and paste... then save and print, or send. By the end, lord knows which document that is open on my desk top becomes the finished product, as long as there is a finished product and all the disparate buts for the project are saved in a relevant folder.

So let's say he had a document from last year that he researched and generated himself, that was similar enough to your assignment, so that he used his existing research as a template and jumping off point (he's already done this work before, more or less), then he wrote a bunch of new content in a new document... then edited that, cut, and pasted all of the new generated content plus edits, back into the old doc (using it as a template) and saved THAT as the "new paper," rather than generating new content, plus editing in the old research, into a new doc he was developing? It's may be sloppy to you that he plugged the final draft into the older document, but it is his work to draw from, and he's not presenting work that isn't his.

I think you are unfair regarding the plagiarism on every level, but if the assignment handed in doesn't speak to the spirit of your assignment, mark him on that.


If I had a bunch of research on a topic I had previously worked on, and I had another assignment concerning same research, I'd use the info twice. Full stop. Because it was my work, regardless of date.

You have a case for not fulfilling the assignment to spec, but not for plagiarism. It's annoying that your school seems to expects students to start from scratch in subjects they are already engaged in and have researched.

He's wrong for not handing in the exact specified assignment. The rest is mute.

Forgive me here if I've misinterpreted the situation. This is my take-away. YMMV.
posted by jbenben at 12:00 AM on February 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


Oops, typo!

"...disparate BITS for the project are saved in a relevant folder."

There. Fixed that.
posted by jbenben at 12:02 AM on February 23, 2012


You have a case for not fulfilling the assignment to spec, but not for plagiarism. It's annoying that your school seems to expects students to start from scratch in subjects they are already engaged in and have researched.

Ugh. I just typed out a whole response and deleted it by accident.

Anyway: this.

I did this once as an undergraduate in the pre-digital age. Re-typed large chunks of a previously-submitted paper, figuring it was the same subject and the same book, and I had already done the research. I threw in an admittedly weak frame around it for the new assignment and turned it in thinking it would just save time.

Apparently because the first paper (A+) had been so good, it had generated some discussion among my professors. So I got 'caught'.

The professor who received the rehash did exactly what has been suggested above: gave me a lower grade (B-). And she explained why.
posted by trip and a half at 12:24 AM on February 23, 2012


Knowing my own Word usage, I do not think there is any smoking gun here. I would judge the paper on its merits and relevancy. I would also have a colleague read it so that any preconceived bias toward viewing this as a re-used paper is not transferred to the grade.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:58 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


If I had a bunch of research on a topic I had previously worked on, and I had another assignment concerning same research, I'd use the info twice. Full stop. Because it was my work, regardless of date.

I understand this very well and am sympathetic to this, and as an aspiring scholar myself, god knows I see people "re-use" work between publications and conferences and so forth. I would completely encourage students to follow up on and deepen work that they had already done. I think this is very clearly not the case with this particular student. The paper is just really off-topic, and it also appears to be an excerpt of a longer pre-existing work, as it has this really truncated feel (and my paper assignment was shorter than a typical English paper). But yes, in general I can understand that my school's policy is unfair in certain cases and it has to be very sensitively applied.
posted by ms.codex at 1:04 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you really want to research this, you can see what courses Stu was enrolled in for the Friday, March 25, 2011 semester. Only in one or possibly two of them would he have been assigned Measure for Measure in that term. Otherwise, just get him to re-write on the basis that he failed to address the assignment.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:44 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Please don't convict this kid on a shaky hunch you have about the MS Word metadata of his file. Maybe he wrote it in one of the thousand other programs that open and save .doc files with varying measures of success. Word processors are weird.
posted by wayland at 1:58 AM on February 23, 2012


Please don't convict this kid on a shaky hunch you have about the MS Word metadata of his file.

No, of course not. And you've all taught me that the "Properties" feature of Word is unpredictable enough that I can't know anything from that alone. I'll make a decision based on the other features of his paper.
posted by ms.codex at 2:16 AM on February 23, 2012


This should be easy to check by calling his adviser, asking who his prof was that semester, and asking that prof about the paper. Also, I think a violation of the honor code is a bigger deal than just turning in a bad paper. If this is a violation then OP needs to do more than just give Stu a bad grade on this one assignment.
posted by monkeymadness at 3:33 AM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


"How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth? We know that he did not print on this date. We also know that he could not have been created the essay in this time. When, then, did he create it?"
posted by unliteral at 5:04 AM on February 23, 2012


I just pulled up a doc I worked on yesterday and definitely printed yesterday for a meeting. The last printed date is from 2011. I wouldn't trust Word metadata to water my dead plants.
posted by General Malaise at 5:29 AM on February 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is it possible that Stu himself thought he was turning in the new "Measure for Measure" paper when in fact he instead put the new-class metadata (name, class, etc.) on the old-class paper, which he had open on his desktop?

Let's call this the "never attribute to malice" theory. If this theory is correct, or even possible, maybe merely asking Stu if he perhaps submitted the wrong paper is sufficient, no disciplinary action needed.
posted by pmed at 5:34 AM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bear in mind that many students also work on more than one computer. If Stu's laptop thinks we are still in 2011, and the library computer knows that we are in 2012, that could cause a lot of weirdness in metadata.

pmed makes a valid point - as a student, I could imagine that it might be confusing to manage multiple papers for multiple classes on a single piece of work. A surprising number of college students will cheat, given the chance, but an even larger number are horribly disorganized.
posted by catalytics at 5:55 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Does your university use Blackboard online? Blackboard has a SafeAssign feature where you can check for papers that have been previously submitted within the university system. This depends on whether the original prof made them turn in their papers using SafeAssign.

I tend to give students the benefit of the doubt even when I am 99 but not 100% sure that they plagiarized, but in any case, I would give this a very poor grade just because it doesn't seem to match your expectations of the assignment or the course at all.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:43 AM on February 23, 2012


But you're right, it seems like there's enough reason to ask Stu to rewrite the paper; I'd just like to come to a decision about whether or not to accuse him (god, that sounds awful) of violating the school's cheating policy, which I take seriously.

Were I in your shoes (and I have been in the past and will be again in the future, I'm sure) I would ask Stu to meet me in my office. I would point out the fishy "printed on" date and ask him to explain it. I would ask him what courses he's taken in the past (or check his transcript before the meeting, if that's accessible to you) in which he might have written on "Measure for Measure" and say to him "if I spoke with your TA/Professor from that class about this paper, what would I discover?"

If his answers to all of those questions seem plausible and forthright, then I'd drop the question of academic honesty (and there is no doubt whatsoever that reusing a paper is academic dishonesty). If his answers are unsatisfactory I would continue to pursue it (at least as far as actually trying to talk to his TA or Prof from last year; if the "printed on" date corresponds with the due date for his Measure for Measure paper from last year and if the paper he handed in does, in fact, pick up on the themes/ideas from that course I'd say the case is pretty solid).

If you do decide to drop the academic honesty part of this after talking to him, I would still give him a low grade for failing to follow the instructions for the essay (assuming that on rereading them they still seemed clear to me; sometimes off-topic essays just make me painfully aware that I was insufficiently explicit in my prompt).
posted by yoink at 1:59 PM on February 23, 2012


I'd like to add that reusing your own work in a professional setting without citing yourself is, in fact, plagerism, if the article or paper you recycle has been presented or published before. Even if you don't take this to the disciplinary board, expressing the "why" of plagerism is equally important to students as the blanket "don't do it". So, it could be important whether Stu did in fact plagerize himself, though I agree that you should just grade him down for not meeting the guidelines rather than "take it upstairs".
posted by zinful at 3:39 AM on February 24, 2012


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