Web site holds honesty lesson for students

Plagiarism: The Net has made it easier to cheat on papers, but professors are going online to fight back.

January 24, 2000|By Jeff Gottlieb | Jeff Gottlieb,Los Angeles Times

Paul Chwelos teaches information systems at the University of California, Irvine, so he knows better than most the power of the Internet. And not just the way it is affecting businesses, but also the way it affects his graduate students.

"It certainly gives them the ability to do better research, but it makes it easier to cheat," he said. "I think it's naive to think the Internet has given such access to information and that it doesn't increase cheating as well."

So this month Chwelos joined a growing number of professors who are using the Internet to fight back. He ran his business administration master's students' term papers through a Web site that scans millions of Internet pages and a backlog of college papers to test for plagiarism. Someday, Web sites such as www.Plagiarism.org, the one Chwelos used, could be as much a fact of college life as cramped dorm rooms.

"I think it's going to be the wave of the future," said Jeanne Wilson, director of student judicial affairs at the University of California, Davis, and president of the Center for Academic Integrity. "If students think we don't enforce our standards, then the unintended message that we convey is that we aren't serious about those standards, and if they're not important to us, why should they be important to students?"

The Web's great threat to academic integrity is that it makes plagiarism easy. By going online, students can point and click their way through technical journals, corporate white papers and work that students throughout the world have posted on the Web, seamlessly cutting and pasting what they need into a term paper, if not copying the entire piece.

Term paper mills also become easier to use. Students no longer have to wade through a catalog to order the paper and wait until it comes in the mail, or even walk into a shop. Term paper companies on the Web give away their work, relying on advertising for their profits. A student goes to a site such as www.schoolsucks.com, downloads the paper, and, instead of a dizzying two nights of writing on no sleep, it's party time.

"The thing is that it can be done in complete secrecy," said Lawrence Hinman, director of the Values Institute at the University of San Diego, "so it's not like asking someone for a term paper or anything like that. You can do it alone in your room at 2 a.m. and have a finished paper for your 7: 30 class the next morning."

No one is sure how much plagiarizing goes on, but professors and administrators say it is on the rise, and they blame it on the Internet. At the University of California at Berkeley, reported cases of academic dishonesty have increased 112 percent since 1995, and about 35 percent of them have been linked to plagiarism, said Doug Zuidema, assistant director of the Berkeley student conduct office.

A Berkeley neurobiology professor told his 320 students in advance that he would submit their papers to Plagiarism.org. He still found that 45 of them had submitted work that was not original. "That is so bare-bones egotistical to think it wouldn't be caught," said Zuidema.

Although it is not alone, Plagiarism.org has received the most interest in the academic world as an anti-cheating device. The company is the brainchild of John Barrie, a doctoral student in biophysics at Berkeley.

About five years ago, when the World Wide Web was just starting to streak from computer geekdom to everyday utility, Barrie set up Web sites for the classes in which he was a teaching assistant. Besides posting notes and interactive assignments, he placed the students' papers on the Web.

The first year, he received positive feedback from the students. The second year the feedback was quite different: Students told him people were taking papers off the site and submitting them as their own work in other classes. Others were selling the papers.

"I was blindsided," Barrie said. "I had no idea that was going to occur."

He gathered a team of friends and, using their scientific expertise, created Plagiarism.org. First, Barrie and his partners created a huge databank that includes the inventory from the free term paper mills. After a teacher submits a paper to Plagiarism.org for checking, it too is scooped into the database. That makes it tougher for a New York University student to pass off the paper his friend wrote for a class at California State University at Fullerton -- if both schools use Plagiarism.org.

In addition, Plagiarism.org has developed a Web crawler that searches the Internet for phrases that match those in the paper being checked.

If Plagiarism.org continues to pan out at UC Berkeley, the school hopes to sign a contract making it available to every professor on campus and even to students. Zuidema sees it "as an advanced form of spell-check. We'd like to see it used as a tool that allows students to check their own work and works as a strong preventive measure."

Donald L. McCabe, a national plagiarism expert at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said the problem will worsen as current high school and middle school students who can't remember a world without the Internet go to college.

"The biggest issue is the students don't know what's public information," he said. "Their attitude is, it's on the Internet, so it's public information, and we don't have to cite it." McCabe says more efforts need to go into teaching students not to cheat, rather than catching them afterward. He has found that schools with strong honor codes have a lower incidence of cheating.

Meanwhile, Chwelos told his students at the beginning of the semester to be prepared to have their papers checked for plagiarism. He found that when he got the papers back, no one had plagiarized.

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