Anti-Plagiarism Technology

Thwarting the Copycats

With the pervasiveness of internet content, paper mill sites, and plain old student ingenuity (don't they have anything better to do?), academic plagiarism threatens to spiral out of control. Here's what you can do about it.

Thwarting the CopycatsWith over 1,200 undergrads in a single introductory biology lab course, Professor Marvin O'Neal has neither the time nor the resources to check the originality of every weekly report a student turns in. O'Neal is course director in undergraduate biology at Stony Brook University, a flagship campus of the State University of New York system. Scanning reports for authenticity is no simple task-- his huge course is divided into 60 sections, each with about 24 students and an instructor. All sections cover the same material weekly, so all 1,200 students have the exact same assignment. With multiple instructors grading papers, the challenge has been: How to prevent students from different sections, with different instructors, from turning in the same report?

The outsized class that O'Neal describes isn't unique to Stony Brook-- and neither, of course, is the issue of student plagiarism. As any instructor knows, the easy availability of internet content has greatly increased student opportunities for work that is less than original. Today, the term plagiarism can range in meaning from using an unattributed phrase or sentence (accidentally or intentionally) to submitting entire purchased works as one's own. The profusion of online paper mill sites, which offer material that can be illicitly submitted as a student's work, have heightened what has been an ongoing battle since long before the internet. But while 25 years ago plagiarism might have meant two students sitting together copying each other's work or sharing notes from year to year, plagiarism today tends to make use of paper mill websites or sites such as Wikipedia, and it is greatly facilitated by the ease of finding specific information through search engines like Google.

Tools for Outsize Classes

Thwarting the Copycats

TURNITIN'S DATABASES for comparing papers contain some 9 billion pages of internet content, and in addition to a growing store of textbooks and published material, 10,000 publications that aren't readily available in cyberspace.

Trying to fight fire with fire, increasing numbers of schools have turned to technology for help, creating what amounts to a boon for anti-plagiarism tool vendors. At Stony Brook, for instance, O'Neal is using Blackboard SafeAssign to monitor student submissions, a hosted service that Blackboard added to its course management suite last year. In May, the vendor said that SafeAssign had already been used to check the originality of over a million papers, online.

Similar to its competitor, iParadigms' well-known Turnitin, SafeAssign works by checking submitted papers against a number of sources, including a version of the public internet itself, along with various other databases for which Blackboard has access agreements. In a feature that Blackboard reps say differentiates SafeAssign from Turnitin, customers can maintain a separate local database unique to their institutions, and submit papers against that, as well.

A year ago, Blackboard took on Turnitin's huge market share when it began shipping its own anti-plagiarism software, SafeAssign, after acquiring technology from MyDropBox, a small company with an anti-plagiarism product already on the market. Beginning with release 8.0 of the enterprise version of the Blackboard Learning System, which shipped in January, a SafeAssign "building block" is preinstalled with Blackboard at no extra charge as part of the academic suite license. Papers submitted to SafeAssign are checked against sources including a locally maintained database at each institution, along with the public internet, through a Blackboard partnership with Microsoft's Live Search technology. The product also compares papers to databases of millions of articles in subscription journals and other publications, and the global crossinstitutional reference database in which users can opt to include their papers.

With Blackboard's SafeAssign, students can control whether or not their reports are submitted to a global-- as opposed to institutional-- database, addressing an important privacy issue.

At Stony Brook, O'Neal has included passages from the course textbook in that local database, along with all papers submitted by students in the course currently and previously. In fact, in his biology course at Stony Brook, every student must submit every paper through SafeAssign. The system calculates a "rating" figure for each paper, according to the percentage of material it finds already existing in its databases. A high number can raise a red flag that the paper includes a large amount of work that is similar to other papers or the course textbook.

Since some content may be the same in paper after paper (the word "introduction" or the phrase "the heart pumps blood," for example), the rating is only a first step. If a paper triggers a sufficiently high rating, an instructor steps in to subjectively evaluate whether or not plagiarism may indeed have been committed. "The instructor has to apply some subjective determination as to whether this is academic dishonesty or not," O'Neal says. "I help my instructors with that. I'll say, 'If you think it is academic dishonesty, come see me and we'll go through it together.'" To date, no antiplagiarism product or service is fail-safe, he explains. "It doesn't tell you whether [a student] is guilty of academic dishonesty; it just tells you whether the text he or she has submitted is similar to text that other people have submitted."

Still, the reports these new tools generate can be critical in determining if illegal replication of content has indeed occurred. If, for instance, O'Neal and the section instructor determine that plagiarism is evident, the SafeAssign report is submitted to the university's Academic Judiciary Committee as evidence. The committee makes the final decision and metes out the appropriate punishment.

In the case of SafeAssign, the product's ability to maintain a special database unique to Stony Brook was important to O'Neal. The university also had a subscription to Turnitin when he began using SafeAssign in fall 2007; the department had used Turnitin for two semesters before switching. At that time, Turnitin followed a model in which all student papers submitted to it were automatically added to its massive database. The vendor now offers users the option of electing not to have their papers added to that database, just as SafeAssign does. However, as of this writing, Turnitin does not offer the private database option.

Hey, It's Free

THERE ARE A NUMBER OF FREE anti-plagiarism search tools available, although they don't offer the integration with a larger learning management package, or the many amenities offered by either Turnitin or SafeAssign (the two formidable solutions covered in our story). Generally, free products search the public internet. Some conduct only limited searches; few will search subscription journals, private databases, works no longer in the public internet, or other less-commonly available works. Some products will compare papers within a group to each other, to cull out similarities.

  • The University of Virginia continues to offer the free WCopyfinder, which examines a set of documents-- all papers submitted by students for one assignment, for example-- and compares them with each other, looking for matching phrases. It does not search the internet.
  • The sort-of-free DOC Cop is a web-based plagiarism detection service that compares individual reports to each other or to the internet or both, then prepares a report displaying the correlations and matches it finds. Free web comparisons are limited to 75 words, and two submissions per day. The cost per use is about $4 per 2,000 words.
  • To better understand how to recognize and combat intellectual dishonesty, instructors (and students) can visit The site, which argues that plagiarism detection tools are only one approach (and one which can be bypassed by clever students), offers tips on recognizing plagiarism.

"The nice thing about SafeAssign," says O'Neal, "is that it keeps those two [databases] separate. In Blackboard, the students control whether or not their reports are submitted to the global database. I think that's an important decision for them." O'Neal and his course instructors did, however, decide they would not to allow students to view their SafeAssign rating after submitting a paper. This was done to prevent a student from submitting a single report multiple times, checking the SafeAssign rating each time, and then altering the report's wording as needed until it passes muster.

There has been one notable downside to the use of SafeAssign at Stony Brook, O'Neal reports: When he first employed it, the 1,200-plus papers moving through the program weekly put such an additional strain on the university's Blackboard servers that they had to be upgraded.

The Preventive Approach

Another approach to fighting plagiarism: Working with students to understand what is and isn't acceptable before they make errors (intentionally or not) and improperly use material that isn't theirs. A number of software products and tools are specifically designed to act as such a deterrent, by educating students up front. Rather than check papers after the fact, they aim to help institutions teach students how to do a better job referencing, citing, and building bibliographies. Both Turnitin and SafeAssign offer components to their products that help with references and citations, but their focus remains on checking papers against databases for similarities.

One referencing and teaching tool, Document It, is widely used in the UK. The tool was originally created at England's Northumbria University and now has been spun off as a product of the independent company Northumbria Learning, which specializes in providing plagiarism prevention and detection products. Created specifically for university students, Document It was designed as a reference tool, and works as a complement to products such as Turnitin, which Northumbria Learning also offers. During an online search, Document It highlights the fields necessary for each type of citation, while providing additional help and advice along the way.

Another example of software designed for clearly tracking references and citations is PaperToolsPro, a web-based, lowcost referencing tool that is available as a download for Mac users, or online for anyone (one to five PaperToolsPro licenses cost $55). According to Nathan Harbacek, who used the software throughout his undergraduate years at Princeton University (NJ), the program was highly useful for tracking sources efficiently during research. PaperToolsPro is particularly helpful for citing and sourcing, he claims, because it lets users make notecards that clearly track information back to the original source. Harbacek found PaperToolsPro to be an effective antiplagiarism tool because "I knew exactly where my sources came from. I had a very clear record."

One notable downside to the use of SafeAssign: At Stony Brook University, the 1,200-plus papers moving through the program weekly put such an additional strain on the university's Blackboard servers, they had to be upgraded.

The 800-Pound Gorilla

iParadigms' Turnitin is the most widely used online anti-plagiarism tool by far, with over 6,500 institutions worldwide, including both secondary schools and higher education institutions, utilizing the web-based product in some manner. According to company spokespeople, as of July 2008, Turnitin boasts over 60 million student papers in its database.

That database represents strength for the company, but possibly a vulnerability, too: Press coverage last year focused on a lawsuit in which four high school students argued that the product's archived database of papers violated the students' copyrights. At the heart of the issue was the huge database Turnitin maintains, essentially consisting of all student work previously submitted to the company for originality verification. Earlier this year, before the case reached trial, a judge found that Turnitin's use of student work falls under fair use rulings-- a highly favorable finding for iParadigms. The company has ceased requiring, however, that any paper that is checked for originality must also be included in Turnitin's database.

More Anti-Plagiarism Tools and Resources

Not ready to shell out for the big guns? Add some of these to your anti-plagiarism arsenal:

  • Big List at Blackboard. Although a few links are out of date, Blackboard maintains a useful list of anti-plagiarism sites. Links to a variety of software products for detecting plagiarism are included.
  • Head to the British Isles. Northumbria University's (UK) third annual conference on combating plagiarism was held in June.Watch the site for information about next year's event, or head to the Northumbria Learning website to learn about additional resources in the UK and worldwide.

As before, Turnitin uses several databases for comparing papers, including previously submitted content plus some 9 billion pages of internet content (live and archived pages), along with a database of some 10,000 publications such as newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals that aren't readily available on the public internet, if at all. In a deal with publishers announced earlier this year, Turnitin will be adding a growing store of textbooks and other published material to its databases, too.

As with SafeAssign, papers can be submitted in most popular formats, including Microsoft Word, Corel's WordPerfect, PDF, and RTF. Turnitin works with all leading course management systems, including Blackboard and its WebCT system, Moodle, Sakai, and Angel. As part of its Digital Assessment Suite, Turnitin also offers the digital grading and tracking components GradeMark and GradeBook, which let instructors grade papers and assign and track grades online. A new version of Turnitin is in beta and will be available in September, the company says.

Carry a Big Stick

Intellectual dishonesty has long existed in academia at some level, and institutions have battled it on various fronts. Unfortunately, the internet's ready access to material that can be easily purchased or quickly copied has upped the ante for colleges and universities. As with antivirus software, vendors have now risen to the challenge with targeted, sophisticated products to combat the problem. Educating students about properly using and citing sources certainly helps, as does offering them tools to make the task easier. That's seldom enough, however, but as many schools have found, even the knowledge that the institution employs software that checks student work for originality can act as a very effective deterrent.

Probing for Plagiarism in the Virtual Classroom
Plagiarism: IT-Enabled Tools for Deceit?

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