Volume 8, Number 4: January 16, 2002
Ellen Laird, who teaches English at a New York community college, compares online plagiarism to takeout food: fast, cheap, all too tempting, and hazardous to our scholarly health. She laments that her meticulous efforts at educating and discouraging her students from the ills of plagiarized research have met with disappointing results, that the glow of the computer screen in the seclusion of one's dorm room has lured even the best of her students to commit academic thievery.
She writes, in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "My sense is that Internet plagiarism is becoming more dangerous than we realize . . . From his own bedroom, [my student] has access to an unprecedented wealth of resources. He is not sitting in a library, which might, like a church, prompt behavior worthy of the setting." Stealing other people's words and ideas, she says, has become too simple a venture--as easy as point, click, cheat.
One doesn't have to leave Wisconsin to hear such tales of scholarly woe--the humanities professor who hesitates at teaching certain classics because they are too available online, the ethics professor who discovers three intentionally plagiarized papers from one class using a Google search, and more. A recent post regarding online plagiarism on Teaching with Technology Today's electronic mailing list (wislrntec) yielded a host of stories like these from frustrated UW teachers.
Whether or not online sources have in fact increased the incidence of academic dishonesty remains unverified. Certainly technology has provided more opportunities for students to cheat, but so has it created new ways for teachers to deter latent plagiarists. In fact, some UW faculty are using the Internet to take matters into their own hands--or their own mouses, so to speak.
Phyllis Holman Weisbard, UW System Women's Studies Librarian, has presented her research on Internet plagiarism nationally. Her Web site--Cheating, Plagiarism, and Other Questionable Practices--includes links to for-fee and for-free term paper sites, as well as links to plagiarism detection sites, articles about Internet cheating, and advice for preventing it.
For Holman Weisbard, "discouraging plagiarism rather than rote policing" is the bottom line. Her collection of links aim in part at informing teachers of the opportunities the Internet provides for potential cheaters. Gaining a little Web know-how can be a deterrent, she says. She suggests several ways that teachers can let their students see their technical savvy, such as creating a home page, including Web links to current resources in course syllabi, devoting time in class to reviewing the validity of Web sources, and using Web terminology (URL, html, search engine, etc).
Of course, many preventative methods have been around since the days of paper, pencil, and hefty volumes of the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. These include suggestions for structuring and monitoring writing assignments in ways that minimize plagiarism prospects. A good list can be found at Holman Weisbard's web page. (To view another Wisconsin-bred Web site, visit UW-Platteville's page, Plagiarism Prevention, developed by Karrmann Library staff.)
One trend in plagiarism detection and deterrence is the use of online detectors, the most basic of which involves free search engines like Google. Often, merely typing chunks of suspicious text into Google leads to expedient, if disappointing, results. However, Holman Weisbard cautions, neither Google nor the fee-based detectors can locate material appropriated from the "deep" or "invisible" Web--the data-based, full-text catalogues that most academic library Web sites currently house (such as Lexis-Nexis).
Fee-based services have the advantage of added convenience for busy professors. And, as some faculty and academic staff at the UW-Green Bay have found, students seem to take them more seriously. The campus recently purchased a departmental plan (individual and institutional plans are also available, at varying costs) from one of the better-known plagiarism detection systems, Turnitin.com. By holding class sessions on plagiarism and on the use of Turnitin last spring, four Green Bay instructors hoped to discourage students from cheating, more than to catch them at it after the fact.
As Andrew Speth of UW-Green Bay's Learning Technology Center writes in an email communication, "Results were even better than we expected. Of the 98 student papers involved, two were (probably) plagiarized. One was probably written by the student's father, and since he did original writing, it wasn't flagged. The second was the only student who wasn't in class when his instructor talked about plagiarism and Turnitin.com."
A study using plagiarism detection software at the University of Illinois produced similar noteworthy results (Braumoeller and Gaines 2001). A pair of political science professors found that coaching their students on the kinds of plagiarism and its consequences had little effect on deterring cheating in their classrooms. However, when the students were made aware that their papers would be monitored using the software (in this case, EVES), the instances of plagiarism decreased considerably. Further, students seemed influenced by the observable evidence of how cheating impacts their grades. The authors write:
Professor Braumoeller took the opportunity to demonstrate how honest students' grades were pushed down, relative to the class mean, by plagiarism. To bring the point home in concrete terms, he illustrated the grading curve before and after penalties had been assessed, and demonstrated that an honest student who had initially received a B on the paper would receive a B+ once the grading curve had been adjusted ... as this discussion drew to a close, quite a few students were slowly nodding their heads (Braumoeller and Gaines 2001, 836).
Paula Ganyard, Library Instruction and Web Resources Librarian at UW-Green Bay, tested Turnitin.com (along with other detection products) and facilitated its implementation. She believes that one advantage to her institution's approach is its flexibility. Instructors can use Turnitin in a variety of ways: they may or may not choose to inform the class of its existence, or they might even have students load their work themselves. The last scenario might be particularly instructive for the unintentional plagiarist; it could give students the chance to correct problems in their own work before submitting a final draft.
Ganyard predicts that, based on last spring's preliminary run, UW-Green Bay will continue to provide funding for the service, though she doesn't see them jumping to an institution-wide account.
To Holman Weisbard, the issue is a philosophical one. While she acknowledges their convenience and their potential to deter cheaters, she believes that using plagiarism detection systems is akin to "announcing to students that we expect them to cheat." Detectors, she says, may drive us further away from "establishing the values of the writing process."
On the other hand, if traditional means of discouraging plagiarism are not succeeding, a new approach might be appropriate. In UW-Green Bay's case, it seems that the plagiarism detection system gets students' attention; perhaps now, while they're listening, teachers can work on establishing the academic values. As Speth says, "[Turnitin's] biggest advantage is its ability to deter students from cheating. It's not punitive; it's not scary. It's just a tool, and we need to use it sometimes."
Braumoeller, Bear F. and Brian
J. Gaines. "Actions Do Speak Louder than Words: Deterring Plagiarism
with the Use of Plagiarism-Detection Software." PS: Political Science
and Politics 34 (December 2001), 835-839.
Laird, Ellen. "Internet Plagiarism: We All Pay the Price." The Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 July 2001, B5. Available online.
To review UW System's policy on plagiarism, see the University of Wisconsin Administrative Code, Chapter 14 (UWS 14); it defines academic misconduct, outlines disciplinary sanctions, and describes the procedures by which sanctions may be imposed.
Rebecca Moore Howard of Syracuse University has written extensively about the pedagogical issues surrounding plagiarism, academic fraud, and patchwriting. I found two of her articles, available online, particularly informative:
"Forget About Policing Plagiarism. Just Teach." The Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 November 2001, B24.
Phyllis Holman Weisbard's site lists
some of the various online
plagiarism detectors available to interested faculty and academic staff.