Plagiarism | Feature

Tackling Plagiarism

The digital age has made copying text, photos, and videos a very easy proposition. Where students were once relegated to using encyclopedias and other resources to find information – and then copy that information by hand in their own pieces of work – all of that information and more is now just a few clicks away on the Web. College professors wishing to bring out their students' originality and creativity face a uphill battle in the information age, what with the plethora of information sources that are literally at their pupils' fingertips.

The problem is being felt across many universities and colleges. According to Pew Research Center's most recent numbers, 55 percent of higher education presidents feel that the problem of plagiarism has increased over the last decade. Eighty-nine percent of those respondents say the Internet and computers played a major role in that uptick.

A few years ago Brevard Community College (BCC) in Cocoa, FL, was one of many institutions grappling with high levels of student plagiarism. Faculty members from the institution's four campuses were tackling the problem – which was exacerbated by the school's growing number of online/independent study programs – on an individual basis.

"Our faculty members recognize that we're in an era of 'cut and paste,'" said Kathy Cobb, provost for eBrevard, the online learning program at BCC, "and that it is so easy for students to 'borrow' information, quotes, or even entire papers from online resources." To address the problem, BCC's teachers would enter sentences and passages into search engines like Google to find out if the text was pulled from other sources.

Virtual teachers who had little or no face-to-face contact with their students were especially challenged in this area. Submitted electronically, essays, papers, and other information were frequently flagged as "copied" or "borrowed" from online sources that the teachers had to ferret out themselves. "The process of checking papers started to get even more time consuming and tedious for our faculty members," said Cobb.

The growing challenge pushed some educators to seek out a more streamlined, automated way to address plagiarism. Cobb and her team conferred with other members of Florida Virtual Campus (FVC), a distance-learning consortium for Florida's 28 public colleges and 12 public universities, to find out how they were dealing with the issue. "We looked to the FVC to see if we had a statewide [contract] or quote on an anti-plagiarism tool," said Cobb who, after coming up empty on that request, was introduced to Turnitin's OriginalityCheck tool by a BCC faculty member.

The Web-based service helps instructors check students' work for improper citation or potential plagiarism by comparing it with the software provider's text comparison database. Another online tool is CopyScape, which helps individuals determine whether the documents they are reviewing are original and/or properly cited. Cobb said BCC's IT department worked with individual faculty members – English composition, literature, and speech instructors, in particular – to select the anti-plagiarism tool and get it set up and ready to use.

Instructors in Gordon Rule classes – where students entering college or university study for the first time must successfully complete, with grades of "C" or higher, 12 credits of writing – were also involved in the selection process. "We didn't want to waste money on something that our faculty wouldn't use," said Cobb. BCC's teachers were then trained on how to use the system, which she said is "fairly simple and straightforward."

Cobb says the anti-plagiarism tool is embedded in BCC's Angel learning management system (LMS). Once uploaded to the system, student papers are rated based on the percentage of content that is similar to other, Web-based resources. A paper that is 80 percent "from other sources," for example, would be labeled as plagiarized. One where 2-3 percent of the content was unoriginal, on the other hand, would be assumed to be original (with the percentage of copied material attributed to use of similar language or terms, for instance).

It didn't take long for BCC students to catch onto their school's unified approach to plagiarism. Initially the number of known instances of plagiarism increased on campus, says Cobb, due to the teachers being armed with the new tool. Then the opposite effect took hold. "As soon as students got word of the new anti-plagiarism tool, the number of instances of copying went down significantly," said Cobb. "The fact that they knew instructors were scrutinizing more carefully helped to bring the incident numbers down."

Used in the traditional classroom setting and for virtual courses, the anti-plagiarism tool has also cut down on the amount of time faculty members spend ferreting out plagiarized content, upholding academic integrity, and holding students accountable for originality, said Cobb.

To other schools that are facing challenges with the proliferation of plagiarism on the digital teaching environment, Cobb said allowing faculty to "lead the charge" is an important first step in finding the right tool for the job. "Look at everything on the market and get faculty buy-in before you make your selection," she said. "Not only will they use it, but they will applaud you for buying it and implementing it."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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