Rethinking Plagiarism in a Virtual World

AUTHOR
Lawrence M. Hinman

ABSTRACT

The development of the World Wide Web has spawned new opportunities for cheating and plagiarism. In this paper, I shall:

  • Briefly describe the changes that technology has brought about in this area;
  • Examine technological responses to these changes; and
  • Suggest ways in which these emerging technological challenges can be met with non-technological responses that are far more effective.

The Technological Shift

In the last two decades, the web has opened up three categories of new opportunities for students who want to plagiarize. First, the web itself is an ever-ready source of material to plagiarize. With drag-and-drop technology, it is incredibly easy for a student to grab a few paragraphs from one source, some pages from another, and assemble them into a marginally coherent whole. On-line encyclopedias, journals, and even personal websites provide limitless possibilities.

Second, lazier students may simply want to get an entire paper from one of the numerous sites that offer already-written term papers. Cheathouse.com, for example, claims to have over 100,000 papers and essays available for purchase. They charge $15 (€10) per month to join. The quality of the essays is very uneven. SchoolSucks.com claims to have over 50,000 and sells them for $10 (€6.75) per page. MyEssays.com promises original (i.e., non-plagiarized) papers with variable pricing, and also provides a venue for students to sell their own papers on-line.

Third, some students may be lazy but demanding: they want their paper to be excellent and to fit the assigned topic perfectly. PerfectTermPapers.com sells custom papers for a wide range of pricing from $7 (€4.73) to $60 (€40.50) per page. These high-end, custom sites still offer a quick turn-around time (for a higher price, of course), and some of them even offer to provide masters theses and doctoral dissertations.

The allure of these sites is the ease and speed with which students can obtain papers. In many cases, they can turn to a term paper site at 10:00 PM, pay for the paper and download and print it, and still get a good night’s sleep before their 9:00 AM class. Such services might have been available earlier, but they were slow and tedious and required almost as much advanced planning as writing the paper itself.

The Technological Response

Just as the spread of computer viruses gave rise to a new industry of anti-virus programs, so too the spread of web-based plagiarism has created new market opportunities to combat this plagiarism. Many teachers and institutions have attempted to meet these new, technologically-based challenges with advanced technological responses of their own. These responses fall into three broad categories.

Initially, individual instructors might do web searches to find the sources from which papers have been plagiarized. This method was tedious and liable to capture only the first category of web-based plagiarism described above.

Second, various software programs have been developed to detect plagiarism, and these are moderately accurate. Many of the companies developing this software have gone out of business, but some alternatives have remained available. WCopyFind (http://plagiarism.phys.virginia.edu/Wsoftware.html), for example, is a relatively simple tool that enhances web searches to find matching passages. WCopyFind is free. Eve2 Plagiarism Detection Software (http://www.canexus.com/) is a program that runs on individual instructor’s computers, and is sold for $30 (€20). AntiCutandPaste.com offers both a regular detection package and a package to detect plagiarism in writing computer code at the same price as the Canexus software.

The third and, in most people’s eyes, most effective and efficient approach has been anti-plagiarism services, most notably TurnItIn.com. No other single product has had such widespread acceptance in the United States market by both institutions and individual instructors. (See, for example, the faculty report on anti-plagiarism software from Claremont McKenna College at http://www.claremontmckenna.edu/writing/Examining%20Anti.htm for a typical assessment of TurnItIn.com) It has been on the market more than ten years, beginning as Plagiarism.org. Part of the secret of their success is that each paper that is sent to them for plagiarism-checking is itself entered into their database, insuring that anyone else that submits that paper (including the same student in a different course) will be detected. Storing the submitted papers has been subject to legal challenge, since it would seem that they are the property of the student. Detailed, color-coded reports are sent back to the instructor on each paper submitted, and institutions are encouraged to purchase institutional memberships that permit all instructors to submit all papers. Pricing is not available on their website; individuals and institutions must request a quote.

Students, of course, are more savvy than most teachers about the limits of such software, and they often resort to software-based countermeasures. Microsoft Word, for example, has long contained an AutoSummarize feature that can be used (with varying amounts of success) to foil plagiarism detection software.

Beyond Technology

Although such technological approaches to plagiarism are often as appealing to administrators and teachers as term paper sites are to students, the emphasis on technological solutions to this problem obscures more basic approaches that lack technological glitz but promise much more pedagogical substance.

The use of services such as TurnItIn.com is the educational equivalent of urine testing of athletes for drugs. It begins with the presupposition of dishonesty. Yet if trust is a fundamental value of the educational process (see the Fundamental Values Project at the Center for Academic Integrity [academicintegrity.org]), such a presupposition automatically contradicts that value. A flourishing academic community can hardly be grounded in such mistrust.

Moreover, the technological attraction of these approaches obscures more fundamental ways of dealing with such problems. If students are asked, over a period of weeks, to submit a topic for a paper, then a one-page summary and initial bibliography, and then receive criticisms and suggestions that shape the rough draft, and then develop a final draft, the need for electronic plagiarism detection disappears. The fact that the problem is technology-based does not mean that the solution must be as well. Perhaps, instead of more effective plagiarism detection technology, we simply need better teaching.

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