Online hunt of school cheats

Plagiarism: Students can buy term papers on the Internet. Now, software enables professors to catch them.

January 31, 2002|By Frances Katz | Frances Katz,COX NEWS SERVICE

In less time than it takes to say "copycat," a computer program can scan a student's work and determine whether a paragraph, a page or an entire project is original, or plagiarized from one or many sources.

Faculty members have become just as sophisticated as their students when it comes to using technology: They can detect and deter cheating.

Some professors, such as those at Georgia Tech, developed their own programs to catch cheaters. Their program alerted the professors that 187 students in two computer classes might have submitted copied or collaborated-on work.

Screening for similarities

Commercially available anti-plagiarism software is used nationwide and around the world. Whoever the developer, the concept is the same: A student's work is screened against a database of papers, looking for similarities.

A program designed by University of Virginia physics professor Lou Bloomfield looked for matching phrases in every paper in his database, going back to 1999. Each time the program found a match, it would look for more. It flagged 154 papers, and about half of those turned out to be plagiarized.

"Students often think they are pulling the wool over the faculty's eyes," Bloomfield said. "Don't they realize the faculty can use the same computer search engines they do to find information?"

His free computer program is available at plagiarism.phys.virginia.edu and has been downloaded about 4,000 times.

Deterrence his priority

Turnitin.com is among the detection programs available commercially. The company has 100,000 registered users at high schools and colleges worldwide and screens an average of 5,000 papers daily.

The software, developed in 1997 at Georgia Tech by John Barry, screens student papers for possible plagiarized passages. Barry says the goal is not to catch cheaters, but to deter cheating.

Turnitin.com compares submitted papers to everything on the Internet, to its files of books and papers, and every other term paper that's been submitted to the service. Teachers can see the paper flagged with potentially plagiarized phrases and a list of Web sites they might have come from. (There is a sample on the Turnitin Web site.)

With or without the Web, cheating is nothing new.

According to the Center for Academic Integrity, 75 percent of college students surveyed in 1999 admitted to cheating. About one-third of participating students admitted to serious test cheating, and half admitted to one or more instances of serious cheating on written assignments. The survey questioned 2,100 students on 21 college campuses across the country.

"It's naive to think that what happened in this class isn't happening in other classes at [Georgia] Tech or any other prestigious university in the world," Barry says, referring to the effort that caught 187 students. "Universities take actions such as using Turnitin.com to make sure they are not the next Georgia Tech."

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