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Plagiarism: IT-Enabled Tools for Deceit?

The other day, a call came in to a faculty support team from an instructor with what has become an increasing concern: a paper submitted for a class assignment didn’t seem representative of the student’s prior work. Red flags were raised. Was this a case of plagiarism? How could the professor check?

Faculty fear of plagiarism is, sadly, legitimate. Web sites continue to proliferate offering term papers, short essays, and reports of one sort or another at anywhere from $7 to $30 per page. Their increasing availability certainly suggests there is a market.

While we condemn submitting the words of others in place of one’s own, we fail to look at why this happens. The answer is not so simple. Some of the transgressions collected under the plagiarism banner include failure to attribute the source of an extensive quotation, not formally recognizing the originator of an idea, using phrases of others without indicating so with quotation marks, and, of course, wholesale downloading of term papers. Some transgressions are omissions, others a failure to understand the ethics of copyright.

No faculty member should tolerate a downloaded paper. There are software tools that can help. Send the text of a student’s paper to one of a number of services that will search the Internet for matches. A handful are free, but the majority, like the paper sites, are commercial ventures, and their effectiveness varies. Depending on the sophistication of the comparison tool, subscription paper sites may be inaccessible. But they assuage some faculty anxiety and catch those students whose laziness extends not just to writing the paper but to the method of procuring it.

How do they work? Most rely on statistically based vocabulary cross-checking and comparison of structural recurrences in text passages. For example, uses a plagiarism-checking algorithm that appears to rely on word similarity or identity. This assumes that most students will not bother to make wholesale lexical or structural changes to the material they copy.

Other services develop a digital “fingerprint” that is used to search across a wider swath of possible Web sources. But they do so at a cost of their own. The submitted papers may be added to the plagiarism-checking databases, violating the student’s intellectual property rights in the process.

Plagiarism isn’t limited to text, however. The increasing complexity of software programs makes it harder to detect the use of computer code copied from one program and inserted into another. Alex Aiken at the University of California, Berkeley, has developed an open source software program for comparing software code for similarity (

What relationship do faculty members want to have with their students: enforcer and violator, or mentor and apprentice? The technology of document distribution (e.g., paper mills) and the tools of copyright prevention (plagiarism checkers) will co-evolve. Instead, we should examine why students choose to plagiarize. Do they value the learning opportunities in class? Do the writing assignments challenge them and help them find relevance in their lives and experiences? What happens to the written assignments that are submitted? Are they woven back into the course to help students?

Writing in the November 16 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rebecca Moore Howard, associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, admonishes us that the shortcomings of faculty are not an excuse for students’ plagiarism (

“We deprive our students of an authentic audience if we assign papers that are due at the end of the term and that the students never see again. We deprive them of an interested audience if we scrawl a grade and ‘good work’ on a paper—and nothing else. We deprive them of a respectful audience if we tear apart the style, grammar, and mechanics of their papers, marking every error and accusing them of illiteracy for their split infinitives, without ever talking with them about what they were trying to accomplish, how they might achieve their goals, and why all the style, grammar, and mechanics matter anyhow.”

In short, we would be wise to take a closer look at the pedagogy enlisted in the search for knowledge, and its relevance to students’ lives, before calling in the plagiarism police.

Term Papers on the Web

Selected Anti-Plagiarism Sites
Self-described “online resource for educators concerned with the growing problem of Internet plagiarism.” and
“The Instructors Guide to Internet Plagiarism.”
A commercial service that checks student papers against its paper database. It bills itself as a plagiarism-prevention service.

EVE (Essay Verification Engine)
A downloadable application that performs complex searches against text, Microsoft Corp. Word files, and Corel Corp. WordPerfect files.

A free site that checks against paper mill sites to find copied text.

Anti-Plagiarism Resources

The Center for Academic Integrity
An association of more than 225 institutions that provides a forum for identifying and promoting the values of academic integrity.

What is Plagiarism?
Guidelines from the Georgetown University Honor Council.

Avoiding Plagiarism
Guidelines from the Office of Student Judicial Affairs at the University of California, Davis.

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