Library Issues
Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University
 
Vol. 22, No. 6 July 2002


Plagiarism: Finding It and Stopping It

by Mignon Adams

A popular software program to detect plagiarism was originally called plagiarism.com. The owner says he was forced to change it after receiving numerous requests from students looking for materials to plagiarize. Clearly, plagiarism is widely practiced on our campuses.

Yet, as Sue Stroyan, library director at Illinois Wesleyan University, points out, “no one wants to deal with plagiarism after it happens.... not the faculty, not the student discipline committee. The only viable way to deal with plagiarism is to stop it before it happens.”

Not long ago a chemistry professor called me. While he does not often require papers, he had wanted to show his support for increasing writing requirements across campus, so he had assigned a short paper on chemistry ethics. After reading the papers, he decided that one of the papers seemed astonishingly well written for the student who had submitted it. He did a quick Internet search and found a term-paper mill essay that sounded suspiciously like the one he had received. But to prove plagiarism, he would have to purchase the paper. This would place him in the ethical dilemma of providing revenue for a commercial venture that was anathema to him.

Old Concern, New Means of Delivery

Plagiarism is hardly a new concern on college campuses. Thirty years ago, new to the library profession, I could cite numerous instances of outright copying: seeing a student at a typewriter typing in the chapter of a book verbatim; finding a research paper left in the photocopier with the cover sheet bearing the name of a student from another institution; reading ads in the campus newspaper placed for national concerns that offered “research assistance.”

The advent of the web, however, has brought vastly improved ways of plagiarism into the reach of every student. Not only are materials easier to find, but they can simply be cut and pasted into a document, ready to be turned in within a few minutes. The electronic resources that libraries have proudly added to their collections supplement the easily procured materials from the web. “Research assistance” firms do not need to track down campus newspapers and purchase advertising space. Their websites can reach millions of prospective customers with ease.

A probably apocryphal story has a student handing in a list of websites to a faculty member, along with the explanation that his printer was broken so he thought his instructor could just look up the websites he was going to paste together. Others have been known to hand in papers that might still have a “click here” embedded somewhere, or a URL left at the top of a page, or otherwise have clear evidence of their quick compilation from the web. Most often, the paper is better written than the student’s other work or shows an unexpected sophistication.

But while students have found the web an easy path to stolen papers, at the same time search engines have made it much easier for faculty to prove plagiarism. In a recent college survival guide a senior in student government at Franklin and Marshall College is quoted as saying, “As a member of the Student Conduct Committee, I’ve seen a lot of denials turn to excuses when we pull up the exact website that was copied. In the ‘olden days,’ instructors had only their suspicions when they came upon PhD-level work connected by 4th grade transitions. Now, it’s like, ‘Hey, Slick, we’ve got some pretty damning evidence here!’”1

How easy is it to find a term paper on the web?

Entering “term paper” in Yahoo leads you to a specific category, “Shopping—research and term papers.” There, 68 term paper mill sites are listed. Some provide research at a cost (“doesn’t your professor have a research assistant?”), others have databases of papers, still others custom write papers. There are several that promise “A+” papers, and one (http://www.bplusessay.com) that provides “B” papers, for “most of us.”

A Google search yields over a hundred listings, including many that offer free papers.

There are numerous sites that specialize in papers for particular subjects: history, African literature, the Civil War, anthropology, even religion (http://www.theologypapers.com).

One site, http://www.toptermpapersites.com, collects student responses in order to rate the top ten sites in customized papers, databases, subjects, etc.

“Even Shakespeare had been accused of plagiarism, styled an upstart crow beautified with borrowed feathers that had been ‘crudely treated by his predecessors’...” This appropriate quote was found in a minute or two by using http://www.authorityfinder.com...a source of pithy quotes, complete with a citation (Hoff, Molly. “The Pseudo-Homeric World of Mrs. Dalloway. (Critical Essay)” Twentieth Century Literature 45.2(1999): 186.No sense to read a book to find pertinent references.

Finally, for students too lazy to search the web themselves, lazystudents.com, provides for a one-time fee of $19.95 access to already existing research papers, dissertations, bibliographies, that are available free on academic websites. Authors of these documents probably have no idea that they’re being offered up for use by dilatory students.

No matter a student’s topic, he or she can find in a matter of moments a paper currently available, or be put in touch immediately with someone (some sites boast that each writer has a PhD in the speciality he or she writes about) who can provide a paper within 2 or 3 days.

Plagiarism Detection

When plagiarism is suspected, a good first step is to conduct an Internet search, as the chemistry professor did. Librarians who have compared various tools have found that a search in both Google and AltaVista (two search engines that cover more of the web than others, but do it in very different ways) was as effective as the commercial tools described later on. This step will identify sources that are freely available on the web, but cannot provide the full text of term papers for sale or journal articles that are provided only to subscribers. Librarians, with their highly developed search skills, can help faculty members devise an effective search and appropriate databases that can be used to identify journal articles that may have been copied.

Various software packages exist to help find content. Some of these are free, and some of them are commercial. The best known commercial software is Turnitin. When instructors use Turnitin, they require their students to submit their papers online at the Turnitin site. The papers are checked not only against the Internet, but also against the database of previously submitted papers, thus possibly catching term paper mill papers as well as papers written by other students. The software compares the text of the entire paper, so even a number of sources that have each been cut and pasted into a paper can be identified. Like web search engines, Turnitin cannot search journals that require subscriptions to view them (unless of course they’ve already been copied and turned in as part of another course). The owner of Turnitin, maintains that his software discourages plagiarism if instructors make it clear at the beginning of the course that papers will be checked.

The owner of Turnitin, maintains that his software discourages plagiarism if instructors make it clear at the beginning of the course that papers will be checked.

At least two sites (EduTie and Plagiserve) claim to search against term paper mills. But since they are possibly located on the same servers as several term paper mills are, some educators feel the Ukrainian creators are either trying to garner revenue from both providing papers and also identifying that they are plagiarizing—or perhaps adding more papers to their stash. Nevertheless, in order to avoid buying a paper directly from a mill, I suggested that the chemistry professor use EduTie’s free trial to check the suspicious paper. The report came back: 18 percent of the paper came from other sources.

The chemistry professor now found himself at a place where other college instructors have been: strong indications of plagiarism, but a lack of definitive proof. Student disciplinary committees cannot act on suspected plagiarism. They require, and rightly so, that the instructor bringing the charges be able to substantiate the charges.

In fact, even when the proof is more definitive, instructors often choose not to follow through. In a recent workshop on plagiarism, some teachers said they opted for confronting a student and then allowing him or her to rewrite the paper. For the past two years, Pennsylvania State University has had a special grade of “XF” to be assigned to someone found plagiarizing. In the first three semesters, out of some 80,000 students taking 3 to 5 courses a semester, this grade was reportedly been awarded 3 times.

No one wants to deal with plagiarism after it happens. Academics need to do what they can to deter it.

Designing Assignments to Deter Plagiarism

Why do students plagiarize? They cite lack of time, no sense of the importance of doing their own writing, and the fact that it’s easy. Faculty can make it difficult for students to plagiarize by designing assignments that can’t be matched by an already written paper, and by assuring that students have written the papers themselves.

Instructors report that they assign papers because they want students to practice writing skills, to learn the process of research, and to be able to synthesize and analyze information. These goals can certainly be met in a variety of ways.

Librarians have a long history of working with faculty members to design assignments that will encourage students to learn more research and critical thinking skills than does the simple assignment of “write a paper on a topic related to the class.” Long before the web made plagiarism so easy, they were developing lists of tips, often called, “Alternatives to the Term Paper.” Such lists are available on library websites.

To make it difficult for students to purchase or download an already written paper, librarians stress using current issues, asking students to compare and contrast unique items, or drawing on their personal experiences.

For example, librarians have recommended that students could be asked to take a current newspaper article and find its antecedents; examine and evaluate a dubious website and compare it with a credible one on the same subject; or nominate someone they know for the Nobel prize. Many other ideas are available on library websites, but the best source is probably a local librarian, who knows the students and can help to develop assignments that will work well with the resources available.

To assure that students have written their papers themselves rather than hiring a fellow student or a “professional” researcher, there are other techniques that can be used. Many instructors require their students to turn in a preliminary outline and list of sources. But students can also be asked to keep a diary of their research efforts; quizzed on their paper’s thesis after they turn it in; and required to identify and defend the best source they use. Richard Harris, an English professor, has a number of suggestions on his website and in his book, The Plagiarism Handbook.2

All of these are steps that individual instructors can and should take, but most important is an institutional stance against plagiarism.

Plagiarism Detection Software

Internet Searching

Turnitin.com
(http://www.turnitin.com): checks student papers against both Internet and its database of previously submitted papers. Students submit their papers themselves to a website. Most widely used product. Individuals, $100/year for 5 classes; small institutions, $1750/year for 150 classes.

Eve2 
(http://www.canexus.com/eve/):
Search engine loaded on instructor’s PC. Instructor must submit as text file; processing time from 10 minutes and up per paper. Checks against the Internet. $19.99 per instructor.

Plagiserve
(http://www.plagiserve.com) and
EduTie (http://www.edutie.com): 
Claim to search against term paper mills—BUT their servers are in the same IP range as several term paper mills. The first is free; ask for institutional rate for EduTie ($500/year for 2000 FTE students).

Other Plagiarism Tools:

Glatt Plagiarism
(http://www.plagiarism.com): takes out every fifth word, student is asked to fill it in. Stand-alone CD-ROM product, $250. Also available: a tutorial ($250) and a “self-check” quiz (free on the site).

Copyfind
(http://plagiarism.phys.virginia.edu): freeware from the University of Virginia to compare papers within a locally held collection (for example, if an instructor assigns papers on the same topics each year).

Wordcheck
(http://www.wordchecksystems.com/): compares two papers to see if they match. Instructor must submit the papers. $59 for academic stand-alone PC version.

Preserving Academic Integrity

If students are to be deterred from turning to plagiarism when they are short of ideas and time, then they must be convinced that plagiarism is wrong and will lead to serious consequences.

• Does your institution have a clearly written policy about academic integrity, including a workable definition of plagiarism? A biology instructor recently charged a student through the formal disciplinary process, only to be told that she didn’t understand how to use quotation marks. There should be campus agreement on what plagiarism is.

• Is plagiarism discussed in each class? If proper attribution and use of sources is addressed only in English composition courses, many students assume that those course professors are the only ones concerned.

• Do some students receive stringent sanctions such as delayed graduation, while others have only to rewrite a paper? Apart from the obvious unfairness, vastly unequal punishment make the chances of being caught appear even more like a lottery.

• Do the faculty themselves set good examples, by following the principles of fair use and respect for intellectual property? When popular cartoon characters regularly appear in faculty-produced media; when copious articles are passed out, with no attribution; when well-known historians are excused for their excessive “borrowing” from others—then students are given a very clear message that the representation of others’ materials as their own is acceptable

Instructors sometimes explain their reluctance to confront possible cheaters or to present them to the formal disciplinary process by expressing a fear of litigation. In an atmosphere where students are often known to bring attorneys to a campus hearing, these instructors foresee a possible lawsuit for themselves or for their institutions. In fact, courts typically support the university and express a disdain for plagiarism. One attorney, Ronald B. Standler, examined the case law on plagiarism in 1999 and uncovered no cases in which the court found for the accused plagiarists.3

On the other hand, a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education,4 questions the legality of a service like Turnitin.com. Because a copy of the student’s work is retained on the server, the student’s intellectual property rights may be infringed upon. Turnitin.com encourages professors to warn students that their papers will be checked and kept by the company, and to request that students upload their papers themselves.

On many campuses, there have been concentrated efforts to increase the awareness of how to deal with plagiarism. The library or the writing center, or both, has often led these efforts. Faculty need to be aware how very simple and easy it is for students to plagiarize and how difficult it can be to definitively prove it. They need to share ideas for creative assignments that teach students to locate, evaluate, and use information.

Oh, and the chemistry professor. He reluctantly concluded that his evidence wasn’t sufficient for proof. But he is more than ever convinced that writing in his class is important for his students, and he’s hard at work designing an assignment for next year that his students will find harder to plagiarize than to do it themselves.

Plagiarism on campuses can be decreased. It can be done by educating students about the consequences and effects of using others’ work and by encouraging faculty to devise better assignments, perhaps in concert with librarians. Most important, universities need to establish policies of zero tolerance for plagiarism that includes respect for intellectual property by everyone on campus and ensures that dishonest students are treated uniformly across campus.

References

1Suzette Taylor, Been There, Should’ve Done That II, Front Porch Press, 2001, p. 95.

2Richard Harris, The Plagiarism Handbook, (Pyrczak, 2001).

3http://www.rbs2.com/plag.htm

4Andrea L. Foster, “Plagiarism-Detection Tool Creates Legal Quandary,The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 17, 2002, p. A37-38.

 

 

 

Sites with Ideas for Deterring Plagiarism

UC Berkeley Library: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib/PaperAlternatives.html

Memorial University of Newfoundland Libraries: http://www.mun.ca/library/research_help/qeii/assignment_ideas.html

Columbia Gorge Community College: http://www.cgcc.cc.or.us/Library/alternatives.htm

University of Michigan Library Instruction: http://www.lib.umich.edu/instruct/assignments/typelist.html

Virtual Salt (http://www.virtualsalt.com/antiplag.htm): Useful tips from Richard Harris, a college professor of English.

Cyberplagiarism Page at Penn State (http://cac.psu.edu/ets/cyberplag/): a very useful compilation of links to campus policies and articles about plagiarism.

Plagiarism and Honor, Virginia Tech  (http://www.english.vt.edu/~IDLE/plagiarism/plagiarism1.html): An excellent model. Includes a tutorial followed by a quiz. Clearly explains plagiarism through examples, gives statistics for cases handled by the judicial system, and emphasizes how plagiarism affects faculty, students, and the academy. 

 

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Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 22, no. 6. © 2002 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $75/one year; $140/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $25 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: apdougherty@CompuServe.com) Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at <http://www.libraryissues.com/index.html>

 

last modified: July 2002

 

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