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     February 2004

Education Up Close

Fighting Fire with Fire:
Using the Internet to Reduce Electronic Plagiarism

The news from Professor Bloomfield's Physics course at the prestigious University of Virginia was bleak. Bloomfield caught wind of a rumored cheating problem in his 500+ student class and decided it was time to check up on his students. Using a customized software program, he analyzed 1500 term papers from his electronic database of past and present students to put these rumors to rest.

What he found not only put the legendary UVA honor system in doubt, it put many students out of the running for a college degree. 122 of his students had plagiarized their papers.

Unfortunately, plagiarism and cheating in general is just as prevalent among high school students. A recent survey of top students from Who's Who Among American High School Students found that 80% of high achievers reported to having cheated at least once.

The Internet and digital technology in general has greatly enhanced students' opportunities to plagiarize material quite effectively and covertly. There are numerous Web sites that provide students with access to thousands of research papers in a matter of moments.

Fighting Back
Like Professor Bloomfield, teachers nationwide are fighting back the tide of electronic cheating using both digital and conventional means.

The increased access to canned essays afforded by the Internet is equally effective as a means to ferret out unoriginal work. Teachers are using a plethora of strategies including using search engines, plagiarism-detection Web sites, email, and customized software programs.

Free and Easy
The cheapest and easiest method of finding work taken from the Web is to conduct a simple Internet search on a search engine site such as Google or Excite. Simply ask your students to submit their essays in electronic form, copy and paste a six or seven word phrase from an essay into the search box, and let it search.

Teaching Today used the Google search engine to easily find the source of a plagiarized phrase from a biography written about Emily Dickinson. At least three different term paper Web sites contained the exact phrase in published essays.

This method only compares the student's work against material available on the Internet, however. Not all plagiarists are so far-removed from their source material. Professor Bloomberg actually found that much of the plagiarized work came from other students. For that kind of detection, teachers need to be somewhat more diligent.

For a Fee
There are also numerous Internet-based pay-per service companies that will search for exact word-for-word matches with papers in their digital archive and on the Internet. The advantage of programs like this is that students have to submit their work directly to the service prior to handing it in to the teacher. The teacher then logs into the Web site for customized analysis of the student's work. Thus, the service compares the work not only to essays posted on the Web, but also to others in the teacher's classes.

The implicit bonus to using services like this is that students know their work is being checked for originality. Of course, that advantage comes at a price.

An Ounce of Prevention
Teachers can help reduce large scale plagiarism by employing a few simple preventative measures.

  1. Discuss plagiarism in the class and clearly define what constitutes plagiarism and inappropriate paraphrasing. You may need to discuss why it is wrong to steal intellectual property.

  2. Help students master the five-step writing process. By teaching students how to write using a process approach, you arm them with the skills they need to actually complete a writing project without resorting to plagiarism. There are numerous tips about the writing process available on the Teaching Today Tip Archive.

  3. Require students to hand in outlines, drafts, and all other evidence of the writing process, including research notes. Make it easy on yourself by requiring them to place it all in a binder or file folder.

  4. Inform students that you will be checking for unoriginal work. This alone can be enough to deter a student; especially when the consequences of plagiarism are harsh.

Read More About It

Plagiarism: What It Is and How to Recognize and Avoid It
Created by the Writing Tutorial Service department at Indiana University, this site outlines standard definitions of acceptable and unacceptable uses of intellectual property.

Student Plagiarism in an Online World
Author Julie J.C.H. Ryan takes a candid look at online cheating and ways in which teachers can spot work that is not original.

The New Plagiarism:
Seven Antidotes to Prevent Highway Robbery in an Electronic Age

Published in From Now On, The Educational Technology Journal, this article discusses seven preventative measures teachers can employ to cut down on intellectual theft.

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