To Catch A Word Thief: Plagiarism Software Tracks Down Academic Cheaters

Universities, high schools increasingly turning to computers to spot material swiped from Web sites.

It's trite but true: The Internet is a double-edged sword for high school and college students.

While the Web is an invaluable research tool, its infinite assortment of professional research papers, famous texts and downloadable essays also provide countless ways to cheat. For a nominal fee, students can purchase prewritten essays on almost any topic from virtual paper mills like Schoolsucks.com and Essayfinder.com. For topics that aren't available — or for cheaters who are a bit more cautious — students can buy custom essays that are written on demand and tailored to specific requirements.

"Many students have reached the point where they just don't see cheating as a big deal, and they can easily justify it as a means of getting assignments done that are too lengthy in their view, too difficult, boring or whatever," said Don McCabe, a business professor at Rutgers University and founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity. "Combine the Internet with this attitude, and we shouldn't be surprised we have a problem."

Now high schools and universities that have been struggling to fight frauds are seeking out a high-tech tool: plagiarism-detection software.

Some software takes aim at one of the most frequent forms of Internet plagiarism: the cut-and-paste method, in which students take excerpts from one or more works and weave the stolen material into an essay. In a 1999 survey, 10 percent of students admitted to plagiarizing material by way of cut and paste; in 2005, that number skyrocketed to 40 percent, according to Duke University's Center for Academic Integrity. Even more troubling, 77 percent of the students surveyed believed that this type of cheating was not a serious issue.

While a single educator or even a whole team of sharp-eyed readers wouldn't be able to comb through thousands of Web pages to compare already-published content with a student's suspicious essay, computers are up to the task.

The most popular detection software is Turnitin, produced by iParadigms. The system scans billions of Web pages, millions of previously submitted student papers in its database and academic text from periodicals and publications for content similar to a submitted paper. An "originality report" is then generated, and a direct source comparison is available for teachers and professors to check the questionable content against original sources. Turnitin's clients include Georgetown University; the University of California, Los Angeles; and the University of Florida, in addition to a number of high schools.

Purdue University has been using Turnitin for about a year, and Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities Student Affairs Specialist Heather K. Webb says it has been beneficial. "I recently completed some research at Purdue on academic dishonesty and many students responded that when they know that an instructor is using a program to detect plagiarism, they are less likely to consider copying from other sources," she said. "It has also been a great teaching tool — some instructors will allow a student to submit a draft and then the student can see where the problematic areas may be and have an opportunity to fix them before submitting the final copy."

Other plagiarism-busting programs include Essay Verification Engine and the Glatt Plagiarism Screening Program. Like Turnitin, EVE2 searches Web content for possible matches to text in a questionable paper. The program also yields URLs for sources of possible plagiarized passages.

GPSP, by contrast, operates under the assumption that every person's writing style is unique. In order to determine if a student has committed plagiarism, the program issues a test for the student. Taking several factors into account, the software produces a report outlining the probability that plagiarism was committed. The company that makes the software claims that no student has been falsely accused thus far.

But while detection programs may be putting a dent in dishonesty, they are still far from perfect.

Turnitin and similar programs operate by saving submitted student papers to a database — a contentious practice. Critics say this practice violates student privacy and is actually copyright infringement because students' work is being catalogued without their permission.

"As someone who believes we need to promote integrity among our students, rather than seek to catch and punish them for cheating, I do have concerns about the broad use of Turnitin," McCabe said. "My concern is that it destroys any [trust] that might be built between faculty and students."

Some students agree. In 2003, a student at McGill University made headlines when he was penalized for refusing to submit assignments to Turnitin. Arguing that his instructor should assess the papers, rather than a computer program, the student received failing grades. The case was later overturned. Meanwhile, Mount Saint Vincent University in Nova Scotia recently imposed a campuswide ban on plagiarism-detection software that went into effect this summer session.

"I do not believe that we are infringing on student rights, but I can understand and respect that some students may be cautious," Webb said. "There are a lot of internal safeguards through both Turnitin and Purdue to protect our students. For instance, we ask the students to sign a release that gives the faculty member permission to submit their work to the Turnitin program."

While the debate rages on, many professors attempt to bypass problems from the get-go by informing their students that they'll be using these programs, hoping that the warning will serve as an effective deterrent before papers are even penned.