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Fighting Fire With Fire

The internet has made it easier than ever for students to illegally copy content, but anti-plagiarism tools are helping educators fight back.

USING THE MATERIAL of others without permission or attribution has always tempted students, but the internet has fed the flames by making an unlimited amount of content easily available for copying. Forget term paper mills and the like; legitimate sources like Wikipedia and Google Scholar (still in beta; make scholarly content readily accessible, and any popular search engine can deliver thousands of site options in seconds.

IT Directions

TURNITIN’s plagiarism prevention tool compares student work to the company’s archive of internet content, as well as to a database containing every student paper ever submitted.

The fact is, although academics and institutions often are uncomfortable discussing it, plagiarism is flourishing in higher ed, amid much confusion. “Internet plagiarism is a growing concern on all campuses, as students struggle to understand what constitutes acceptable use of the internet,” Rutgers University’s (NJ) Donald McCabe wrote in summarizing a 2005 survey of 50,000 undergraduates on 60 campuses by the Center for Academic Integrity. McCabe, a professor of management and a founding member of CAI, further observed, “In the absence of clear direction from faculty, most students have concluded that ‘cut and paste’ plagiarism— using a sentence or two (or more) from different sources on the internet and weaving this information together into a paper without appropriate citation—is not a serious issue.”

There are, of course, straightforward ways to combat illegal copying, including educating students about what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. And anti-plagiarism tools alone are not a complete solution: For one thing, they assume that a copied work exists somewhere electronically already, and thus can be found and flagged. Still, while there are various approaches that instructors can take, studies show that when students are aware that anti-plagiarism software is in use, plagiarism plummets.

Technology Tools to Know

Plagiarism prevention tools work, at the most basic level, by searching for suspect phrases that may have been used elsewhere, then flagging them and citing where they occur. Depending on the product, a tool may search all or part of the internet; proprietary databases on campus or those of other institutions; papers submitted by other students assigned the same work; or proprietary reference sources such as the database LexisNexis and others.

Searching a database of any size (let alone the internet) for duplicate words, phrases, and combinations is not a trivial task, and anti-plagiarism tools vary greatly in their capability and sophistication. For example, CopyCatch Gold from CFL Software Development looks for subtle similarities between documents, not just identical occurrences of words or phrases. That means it can flag potential sources despite changes in word order, or the use of a thesaurus to alter selected words. But the product isn’t designed to search against the contents of the internet; rather, it uses sophisticated algorithms to compare papers in a select group against each other. It can, however, work well in conjunction with anti-plagiarism tools designed to search the internet, according to the product’s creator, linguist David Woolls.

An Anti-Plagiarism Arsenal


  • CopyCatch Gold, from UK linguist David Woolls, checks a student’s work against a pool of select papers for copying infractions, and has a licensing fee per student per year.
  • CaNexus’ EVE2 searches the public internet only; the company offers free trials, or the product can be purchased for $29.99 for a single instructor’s unlimited use.
  • MyDropBox, which integrates with Blackboard/WebCT, offers a plagiarism detection tool called SafeAssignment, as well as tools for peer review, team collaboration, and online markup. Licensing fees start at 15 cents per FTE, with volume discounts.
  • Turnitin checks a student’s paper against the entire internet (including proprietary sites), as well as against commercial property such as books, magazines, and the company’s own database of previously submitted papers. A campus license costs $850 annually, plus a per-student service fee.
  • WCopyfind, developed by University of Virginia Physics Professor Louis Bloomfield, compares a suspect document against a select list of documents. It’s available at no charge.


  • Many colleges and universities have developed resources for fighting plagiarism, including Rutgers University’s (NJ) Paul Robeson Library, which offers a Flash-based online tutorial for students called “What is Plagiarism?
  • Blackboard offers a good list of plagiarism websites and tools.
  • The Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, part of Oxford Brookes University (UK), offers a list of books, websites, tools, and commentary on plagiarism in education

One example of an internet-capable search tool is the plagiarism detection system EVE2 (Essay Verification Engine), from CaNexus. EVE2 searches the public internet (not including proprietary materials) and produces a report with URLs that may have been sources used for suspicious submissions. The report includes the percentage of submitted material that may have been plagiarized, plus an annotated copy of the student’s paper, highlighting any suspect text. The instructor can then verify the flagged instances.

There are a few snags, however. Tools designed to search the internet can identify any publicly available work from which a student may have lifted text, but a student who has posted a draft of his or her work on a blog, for example, may find himself nailed for “plagiarizing” his own words. And products that search only a pool of submitted papers will help turn up instances where students have “shared” their work, but won’t uncover other instances of plagiarism outside that group.

Some schools have created their own versions of plagiarism detection tools, such as the free WCopyfind, pattern-matching software developed by University of Virginia Physics Professor Louis Bloomfield. Like CopyCatch Gold, WCopyfind compares a suspect document against a select list of documents chosen by the user, not the entire internet. In general, though, free tools lack the add-ons that commercial products offer, such as online grading and editing. Also, free tools don’t usually search proprietary databases. Since tools work in different ways, instructors may find it helpful to use two tools in concert, especially to re-check a suspect paper.

Detecting Plagiarism on Campus

In the fall of 2004, Eastern Kentucky University’s Manager of Online Learning Gene Kleppinger selected MyDropBox, a family of plagiarism prevention and online grading tools from Toronto based Sciworth, in response to general interest expressed by the school’s instructors. At the time, MyDropBox was the only product Kleppinger found that integrated with Blackboard’s course management system (CMS), although other products have since added that capability. (MyDrop- Box also integrates with WebCT.) Through Safe- Assignment, the tool’s anti-plagiarism module, students at the university can turn in papers either via MyDropBox itself, or through Blackboard. SafeAssignment compares papers against an internet archive of over 8 billion articles, plus an “intra-institutional archive” of 9 million previously submitted papers, say company spokespeople.

The school didn’t measure rates of plagiarism instances before introducing the product, Kleppinger says, so he can’t determine whether copying has dropped overall. “We had no baseline against which to compare it,” he admits. “Of course, there was an immediate increase in what we uncovered.” When Kleppinger first started using the product in his introductory philosophy class, he immediately detected a surprising instance in which a current student had copied material from a previous student, “something I would never have suspected”—or discovered— without SafeAssignment, he says.

“It’s increased our awareness [of plagiarism], and the incidents in my courses have certainly dropped off,” he says. Kleppinger thinks the reduction is due in part to his policy of explaining to students at the beginning of a course that he will be using MyDropBox, and how it works. “Students are now doing a lot more of their own work,” he concludes.

Advanced Searching

An anti-plagiarism product popular with educators is Turnitin (“Turn it in”), a subscription service from iParadigms. The suite of tools includes plagiarism prevention, online grading, and peer review. Turnitin users (who generally are students required by their instructors to submit their work either via their institution’s web-based Turnitin account or through a Turnitinconfigured CMS) now submit over 120,000 papers per day—amounting to nearly 44 million student papers submitted yearly, worldwide.

Turnitin, which uses its own search engine and archived materials for searches, maintains an archive of internet content that goes back years, so papers that may no longer exist on the internet remain in the company’s database. It also maintains a database containing every student paper ever submitted, along with databases of commercial work such as books, journals, magazines, and newspapers.

“I don’t try to play ‘gotcha’ with the students,” says Ray Hall, a physics and creative thinking professor at California State University-Fresno. “I use Turnitin just to keep them honest.” Fresno State has a campuswide license for Turnitin’s anti-plagiarism tool; Hall also pays extra for a Turnitin feature called GradeMark, which allows him to collect, grade, and manage papers electronically.

Hall has students submit papers through Turnitin and encourages them to view the Originality Report it produces. Because he likes students to see right away whether a paper may have a problem, he configures his Turnitin account to allow students to access the Originality Report immediately. “As I tell them in class, in case they ‘forgot’ one of their sources, they can immediately remedy that,” he says.

Many of the creators of anti-plagiarism tools say that they hope their products will serve more to deter plagiarism ahead of time than catch students after the fact. “I really do believe that most students aren’t cheating,” says John Barrie, founder and CEO of iParadigms, who created Turnitin while he was a graduate student in biophysics at UC-Berkeley. “Unfortunately, they often have to sit back and watch a minority of [cheaters] out-compete them for the grade.”

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