Education

Gotcha!

February 01, 2001 3 min read
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SchoolSucks.com. EvilHouseofCheat.com. With these and similar Web sites offering thousands of research papers for students to copy in a matter of seconds, teachers might seem doomed to lose the plagiarism game. But now educators have a few tricks of their own: Several new Internet sites have cropped up to help nab cybercheaters. And some teachers, well aware of the pressures that can lead students to copy papers and the ease with which essays can be downloaded, are welcoming the high-tech counterattack. “It’s . . . leveling the playing field,” says Linda McPheron, director of the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High School in Central West Florida.

Taking a page from the plagiarists, so to speak, the deceit detectives pour thousands of essays from the cheat sites into their own databases. For a subscription fee, they automatically compare students’ papers against those on file. Some sites also make copies of the assignments as they are submitted for review and add them to the archive. Beyond that, the systems tap into the major World Wide Web search engines to test the essays against thousands of others scattered across the Internet.

Generally, the programs look for word-for-word matches, explains John Barrie, chief executive officer of iParadigms Inc. in Oakland, California. The 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 assignments —typically in Microsoft Word or ASCII format—to the Web site before handing in the paper copy. Within 24 hours, the teacher—and only the teacher—can log on to a Web page to find each student’s essay with suspect text highlighted. Web links connect to the apparent source or sources of each duplicate passage.

While it’s said that cheaters never prosper, catching cheaters can have its costs: To use TurnItIn.com, individual teachers pay $50 for up to six classes and 450 essays per year. A school can sign on as well, but if it doesn’t have 1,000 students to enroll in the program, it pays an additional $200 setup fee. One company, the Harrisburg, Pennyslvania-based IntegriGuard Inc., however, does offer a modified service for free.

Eve2, another program, goes about its plagiarism sleuthing slightly differently from TurnItIn.com: A software program installed on the teacher’s computer sends samples of a student’s paper to the company. There, the program compares the samples to extracts of essays compiled from the cheat sites and Internet search engines. It then flags submissions in which at least three consecutive sentences show a high degree of similarity to another paper. But, Canexus Inc., the Belleville, Ontario, company that owns Eve2, doesn’t add student assignments to its database because of unresolved copyright issues, says Chief Programmer Matthew Hunter.

Barrie of TurnItIn.com agrees that such use of student work is a gray legal area. But he says many attorneys believe that archiving term papers to prevent plagiarism is so valuable that “just about any judge would toss [a copyright- infringement] case out of court.”

That’s because cheating is rampant among today’s students, especially among those competing for places in the United States’ top universities. 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. In St. Petersburg High’s rigorous International Baccalaureate program, participants write as many as 10 papers over two years, and some students resort to plagiarism, admits McPheron. Teachers in the school’s IB program are using TurnItIn.com for the second year, and the Florida League of International Baccalaureate Schools recently adopted TurnItIn.com for all its 28 programs. IB teachers in several California schools have signed on, too.

Still, not all teachers believe technological tools are needed to detect plagiarism. “I’d like to think that in 30 years of teaching, I can pick it up,” says Betsy Fitzgerald, who teaches U.S. history and law at Erskine Academy in China, Maine. Fitzgerald believes that a teacher who is attentive to students’ writing styles should notice copying. To fend off cheating, she says: “I spend a lot of time working on the thesis statement. Once a kid has a sense of their argument, some of the plagiarism issues go away.”

—Andrew Trotter

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