College of LAS « Illinois

Speech Communication

Parrying Plagiarism

a man

Professors show how new 'weapons' can curb cheating.

The Internet has made kidnapping of term papers, well, child's play: Just point, click, and plagiarize. However, as students and professors are discovering, the World Wide Web has become a double-edged sword, for it not only giveth the term paper, but it also rooteth out plagiarism.

In times past, students in a "paper jam" might have "borrowed" a friend's essay or tapped the frat house archive. Today's students can simply click into a website like schoolsucks.com and order or download a paper. Or they can cut and paste meaty bytes of text from the tantalizing four billion pages on the Internet.

Of course, purloining other people's prose is wrong and violates most schools' codes of ethics, including UI's. Nevertheless, students do it. The Center for Academic Integrity's 1999 survey found that 75 percent of college students admitted to some kind of academic cheating. Most disturbing is that the numbers are climbing, with a boost from the Internet. The percentage of students who admitted to cutting and pasting text from the Internet, without attribution, rose from 10 percent in 1999 to 41 percent last year.

George Hendrick, UI emeritus professor of English and a teacher for 48 years, chalks up most plagiarism to end-of-semester pressures. In dire straits, "Some students just take the easy way out," he says.

Trouble is, besides being unethical, the easy way out for the student can mean hours in the library for professors, tracking down plagiarized sources.
Today, professors have some high-tech, though pricey, options for combating copying, such as plagiarism-detection software, which can electronically scan papers for lifted text.

It was in checking out such software that Brian Gaines, an LAS professor of political science, and Bear Braumoeller, now at Harvard, recognized the potential of doing an explicit experiment on plagiarism and on plagiarism-detection software.

What they found in their study—the first of its kind—was that even stern warnings not to plagiarize had no discernable deterrent effect on students. Telling students beforehand that their papers would be run through plagiarism-detection software, however, was a strong deterrent—one that "seemed to concentrate minds wonderfully," the professors wrote in a published report of the study.

For the first assignment, one group was given strong written and verbal warnings about plagiarism; the other group was not. After the students deposited their papers to an electronic mailbox, the professors had EVE (Essay Verification Engine, one of several online services) test for plagiarism. EVE deemed that more than 12 percent of the students in both classes represented "the words or ideas of another as their own, which fits the University's official definition of plagiarism," Gaines wrote.

magnifying glass

For the second assignment, all students were told—and reminded several times—that their papers would be checked by plagiarism-detection software. Only one student submitted a paper that was "quite clearly problematic."
The profs also discovered that while a few students engage in intentional academic dishonesty, far more were unclear on the rules about plagiarism but, paradoxically, had received enough lectures on it that they simply "tuned out" warnings.

" The challenge for the educator is to deter the first group and to motivate the second to pay closer attention," Gaines says. "Plagiarism-detection software seems to serve both functions quite well."

How did the profs grade existing plagiarism-detection software? It's "not perfect," they wrote, "but its success rate is high enough to merit use in a wide range of classroom situations."

Despite the cornucopian nature of the Web, the incidence of plagiarism at UI appears to be stable. Keeping topics narrow, closely monitoring students' progress on their term papers, and rigorously discussing academic integrity in classes, especially in mandatory freshman rhetoric, are widely credited strategies for keeping stealing at bay.

Sure, there still will be those who kidnap from the Web. But weapons of plagiarism-detection are out there, and professors, bending under the weight of exams and term papers, are finding them attractive. Even profs retired from the classroom see the value.

" Any help professors can get to track down plagiarism is wonderful," says Hendrick, remembering—though not wistfully—those long lost hours in the library.

By Andrea Lynn, who attended LAS in the 1960s and is the author of Shadow Lovers: The Last Affairs of HG Wells.
April 2003