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Papers, Profits, and Pedagogy: Plagiarism in the Age of the Internet

Kate Masur, May 2001

Johns Hopkins University history professor Gabrielle Spiegel knew there was a problem when she saw the word catafalque spelled correctly. An undergraduate student had written an extraordinary paper with orthography that bested most graduate students. She called him into her office and asked how he did it. He immediately confessed to having bought the paper on the Internet.

At Spiegel's request, the student showed her how simple it is to use a credit card to buy a paper online. Term-paper mills hawk prefabricated papers and charge by the page. At one major purveyor, the going rate is $9.85 a page, with a free bibliography. It's $19.95 a page to have a new paper written to fit your assignment.

Even without a charge card, it's easy to cheat using the Internet. The web is saturated with prose just waiting to be lifted. In only a few mouse clicks you can copy, paste, format, print, and presto, you have a paper.

The possibility of using the Internet to plagiarize papers poses serious challenges to professors and institutions alike. Individual professors must decide how much time to spend talking about Internet plagiarism with students, whether to be more suspicious of student papers than previously, and how to discipline offenders. Institutions interested in preventing students from cheating their way through school face questions about whether to revise their policies for the Internet age and how to provide teachers with resources to protect against cheating.

It is clear that the Internet offers new cheating temptations and possibilities. Students panicking about an assignment can buy papers at any hour of the day or night and receive them immediately by e-mail. They can download other people's papers and Cliff's Notes-like summaries of novels from any number of free web sites. And they can paste just about any online text into their own documents. According to a number of professors interviewed for this article, many students do not quite understand that text found on the Internet must be cited.

If there is any doubt about the prevalence of cheating in colleges and universities, one need only examine the research of Donald McCabe, a Rutgers University business professor. In studies conducted over the past 11 years in which students are asked to report on their own cheating habits and those of their peers, McCabe has found that on most campuses, over 75 percent of students admit to having cheated at least once.

Preliminary evidence from 25 high schools—a portion of a larger sample—indicates that slightly more than half of all students admitted to having done "cut and paste plagiarism." Between 15 percent and 20 percent of students had turned in an entire paper from the web.

Although the Internet's cut-and-paste ease and constant availability are unprecedented, there is nothing new about plagiarism, purchasing term papers, and paying someone else to do your work. Many conversations about Internet cheating raise familiar questions about teachers, students, and pedagogy: Why do students cheat? How should they be punished? Do teachers expect too much from students? Do they expect enough?

College professors rarely want to play the role of police or disciplinarians. With so much to teach, why spend time checking up on whether the students—presumed to be responsible adults—are cheating? Yet getting burned by cheaters can be sobering and disillusioning. "When you find one student who has stolen a paper or turned in something they found, you start to look at other papers and wonder where they came from," said Greg Shaya, a French historian and fellow at Cornell's Society for the Humanities. "I want to just read it and take it at face value."

Some history professors go out of their way to create original assignments that are both pedagogically useful and difficult to plagiarize. This may involve giving assignments that pertain directly to class work, such as asking students to analyze primary source materials or to use course materials in essays. Such assignments make cheating difficult, even if that was not their primary intention. Some professors find this solution unsatisfying, however. They want their students to come up with questions on their own, so they learn about the process of developing a question and are able to write about a topic they care about.

The competitiveness and stress of undergraduate life often tempt students to cut corners. Students feel pressured by their parents and by the desire to get into graduate school or get a good job. Sometimes, said Patrick Rael, a history professor at Bowdoin College, cheating is a sign that "we're giving them a task that's incredibly formidable," considering their current lives and prior academic experiences.

Professors can respond pedagogically by offering writing workshops or assigning essays in stages, giving students feedback at a number of points in the process. "The way we approach writing is very much wrapped up in this," said Rael, who has created a series of Web pages that teach historical writing. For too long, he said, history professors have commanded students: "Go out and write me a paper." "How can we expect students to do all the things involved in writing a research paper unless we break that process down?" he asked.

Professors who familiarize themselves with the Internet, or at least project web savvy to students, may be able to deter would-be plagiarizers. McCabe has found that many college students avoid plagiarizing from the web because they believe their professors know what's out there. Rael offers students a "course contract" that states: "A special place in the underworld is reserved for those who think their college professor is technology impaired: believe me, I can track down plagiarized Internet material faster than it can be copied and pasted into a paper."

Still, professors often encounter passages in students' work that seem inconsistent or somehow implausible. One basic strategy for checking students' work against text on the Internet is to type a distinctive phrase from the student's paper into a good search engine such as google.com. The search may turn up the identical phrase in an online document.

A few software companies have improved on this procedure and created products specially designed to catch the plagiarizer. The most promising in its comprehensiveness is a company called Turnitin.com (previously known as Plagiarism.org). Turnitin markets "solutions for a new era in education." It sells access to a computer program and an immense database. When papers are submitted to Turnitin, the program searches the entire web and its own vast database for word sequences identical to those in the paper. Every paper checked by Turnitin is added to the company's database.

Turnitin's search capacities are not infallible. Its "web crawlers" cannot bore into gated web spaces that require a password or subscription (such as many term paper mills or, for example, Lexis-Nexis). However, Turnitin's founder John Barrie claims the company's ever-growing database offsets this problem: Paper mills sell the same papers over and over again, he reasons. Once a paper–or any other text–is submitted to Turnitin, it becomes part of the database whether or not the web crawlers can reach its original source.

Barrie bristled at the idea that his program was a policing device. Ideally, he said, Turnitin will work to deter students from cheating just as proctoring an exam does. Students are less likely to cheat when faced with an increased likelihood of being caught.

McCabe maintains that many students resort to cheating because they think no one really cares about it. "Students look around at the larger society and they say what's the big deal? They feel that many of their teachers look at it the same way."

The best remedy, he believes, is to offer students an institutional culture in which cheating is strongly—and publicly—condemned. He encourages campus-wide discussions of cheating and recommends that institutions evaluate how they handle the issue. His research shows that students cheat less at schools with honor codes. Traditional honor codes ask students to pledge not to cheat and to report other students' cheating. In exchange, school authorities express trust for students by allowing unproctored exams and placing students in charge of the judicial bodies that handle honor code violations.

McCabe has also found that "modified honor codes," recently adopted by a number of large universities, work to curb cheating. Modified honor codes typically involve a student judiciary and significant institutional attention to the issue of academic integrity.

The premise that universities should be morally exemplary might be difficult to "sell" to many of today's students. Term-paper mills and lecture-note sellers are not the first commercial ventures to penetrate the ivory tower. Colleges and universities regularly cut deals with corporate sponsors of sports teams, and high schools sign contracts with soda companies. As students are often painfully aware, the extraordinary cost of a college degree itself signals a system in which value is assigned rather arbitrarily.

Yet paying for Turnitin, or another similar product, only tends to confirm the idea that everything is for sale. John Barrie is an aggressive salesperson who boasts that his company will soon be the only viable plagiarism detection software on the market. The company has recently sent advertising mailings to every university, college, community college, and high school in the United States. "In very short order," he said, "we'll have it all wrapped up. We'll become the next generation's spell checker.... There will be no room for anybody else, not even a Microsoft, to provide a similar type of service because we will have the database."

Barrie says he's "sensitive about the big brother thing"—the creation of an extraordinary database of intellectual property to which his company is selling access. He maintains, however, that lower-tech solutions simply cannot curb the problem of Internet-based cheating.

How about nonprofit solutions? Barrie says he doesn't know much about grant writing, but "if the Department of Education wants to come and buy [Turnitin.com] . . . I'll take them up on it."

Most people who have spent time thinking about cheating and pedagogy see these questions of trust, integrity, and property as infinitely complicated. Patrick Rael, for instance, thinks the issue of plagiarism affords "opportunities for thinking about ownership of ideas and words." He wonders about the gray areas: "What if two students study together? What if one is really good and another is not?. . . I have students who coach other students with writing issues. What's the line?"

The ambiguities are real. For instance, the MS Word spell check program points out misspellings and grammatical errors as they are typed. It even knows how to spell the word catafalque—a reminder of how new technologies have changed our everyday interactions with text. Computer spell checkers provide no definition and no context. Dictionaries, in contrast, make us think. They remind us of the ordered relations between letters and words, and they reveal related and adjacent words (like catadupe and catagmatic). There are gains and losses to be tallied, but there is no doubt that spell checkers are here to stay.

McCabe says he sees cheating with far more nuance now than when he started this work 11 years ago. McCabe says he used to be "a law-and-order candidate," a "new academic on a soapbox" advocating honor codes and strict adherence to established rules. These days he still believes faculty who ignore known cases of cheating do a disservice to the honest students in the class by allowing their work to seem less valuable. On the other hand, he said, "I've realized there are certain judgments that I believe faculty should be entitled to make" without being hemmed in by rigid policies.

Protective of their relationships with students and of their own independence, many professors fear that disciplinary boards will be too harsh—or too lenient. Internet or no Internet, professors like to be the final arbiters in their classrooms.

There is a significant difference between unwittingly committing a plagiarism peccadillo and submitting a paper purchased on the Internet. New college students may be unaware of what constitutes plagiarism. High school humanities classes often reward students for learning how to paraphrase; "reading comprehension" is, after all, an important skill. The idea that the rules are different in college sometimes takes a while to sink in.

The Internet recasts these difficult issues by offering a plagiarism red-light district open twenty-four hours a day. As teachers and institutions decide how to face this challenge, counsel from the pre-Internet era may serve them well.

Says McCabe, "If you see a serious incident ... do not look the other way." If other students were aware of the cheating, they "need to know you did something." As Gabrielle Spiegel put it, "It is part of a professor's job to make the classroom a fair environment."

—Kate Masur is on the staff of the AHA's Research Division and is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan.

Click here for a select list of web sites about plagiarism