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Educators Turn to Anti-Plagiarism Web Programs To Detect Cheating

By Andrew Trotter — December 13, 2000 4 min read

Plagiarism is a breeze on the Web, where a proliferation of special sites—SchoolSucks.com, EvilHouseofCheat.com, and LazyStudent.com, to name just a few—offer thousands of research papers, ready for students to copy in a matter of seconds. But now, Web sites are cropping up to nab the cyber-plagiarists.

And some teachers, well aware of the pressures that lead students to plagiarize and the ease with which it can now be done, are welcoming the high-tech counterattack.

“It’s ... leveling the playing field,” said Linda McPheron, the director of the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg (Fla.) High School.

Casting a Web on Cheaters

Taking a page from the plagiarists, so to speak, the anti-cheat sites pour thousands of essays from the free “cheat” sites into their own databases.

For a subscription fee, the new sites automatically compare students’ essays against the papers on file. Some anti-plagiarism sites also keep copies of all the essays that have been submitted by students, and compare new essays against that archive. Beyond that, the systems use the major World Wide Web search engines, allowing comparisons with thousands of additional essays scattered across the Internet. The new plagiarism-detection tools look for word-for-word matches, said John Barrie, the chief executive officer of iParadigms Inc. in Oakland, Calif. He said the anti-plagiarism site his company owns—TurnItIn.com—flags every match of eight consecutive words or more.

Teachers who use TurnItIn.com ask their students to submit their papers—typically in Microsoft Word or ASCII format—to the Web site immediately before handing in paper copies to the teachers.

Then the text is automatically run through the database and Web search engines. Within 24 hours, an annotated version of each student’s paper is placed on a Web page that is accessible only to the teacher. The annotations consist of highlighted portions of text that match passages found elsewhere. Web links are included to let the teacher see the apparent source or sources of each duplicated passage.

To use TurnItIn.com, teachers have to register and pay a fee of $1 per student per year, which allows 10 submissions for each student; schools enrolling fewer than 1,000 students must also pay a $200 setup fee.

Gray Legal Area

Another anti-plagiarism Web tool, Eve2, designed by Canexus Inc., works a bit differently. A software program that is installed on the teacher’s computer takes samples of student papers and sends them over an Internet connection to the company’s computer server, where they are compared against extracts of papers compiled from the cheat sites, as well as the gleanings from Internet search engines.

Eve2 flags essays in which at least three consecutive sentences show a high degree of similarity, even if they are not exact matches. It costs $19.99 per teacher for unlimited use.

Matthew Hunter, the chief programmer for the Belleville, Ontario, company, said Canexus does not add student papers to its database, because of unresolved copyright issues.

Mr. Barrie of TurnItIn.com, which archives student papers, agreed that such use of student work is a gray legal area. But he said “a lot of attorneys seem to think that the use [the company is making] of term papers is of such social value and important purpose that just about any judge would toss [a copyright-infringement] case out of court.”

Monitoring High Achievers

Students in St. Petersburg High’s rigorous International Baccalaureate program write as many as 10 theme papers during 11th and 12th grades, Ms. McPheron said. One of those papers is a senior thesis, for which a teacher serves as an academic adviser. But a different teacher on another campus in the IB worldwide system grades the paper.

“Advisers have to sign a paper saying that, to the best of their [knowledge], the essay was done by the student,” Ms. McPheron said.

Ms. McPheron said some high achievers do resort to plagiarism. In fact, in a survey of some of the nation’s highest achievers released this fall by Who’s Who Among American High School Students, one of every 10 admitted to having plagiarized at least one essay.

Teachers in the IB program at St. Petersburg High are using TurnItIn.com for the second year, Ms. McPheron said.

What’s more, the Florida League of International Baccalaureate Schools, a consortium of 28 public high schools in the state that have IB programs, recently adopted TurnItIn.com for all IB programs, and the company has signed up IB teachers in several schools in California.

Low- Tech Detection

Still, not all teachers believe high-tech tools are needed to detect plagiarism. “I’d like to think that in 30 years of teaching, I can pick it up,” said Betsy A. Fitzgerald, who teaches U.S. history and law at Erskine Academy in China, Maine.

Ms. Fitzgerald believes that a teacher who is attentive to students’ writing styles should notice copying. “I spend a lot of time working on the thesis statement,” she said. “Once a kid has a sense of their argument, some of the plagiarism issues go away.”

And if students try to copy their essays from the Internet, she is confident she’ll nab them: “If I start seeing hiccups in the paper, I get suspicious immediately.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as Educators Turn to Anti-Plagiarism Web Programs To Detect Cheating

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