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Plagiarism | Feature

Fighting Plagiarism With Technology

Plagiarism is rife on campus, with students lifting material from a host of online sources. While technology has made cheating much easier, can it also provide a solution?

Fighting Plagiarism With Technology
Illustration by Daniel Rhone

In 2012, 125 students in an Introduction to Congress course at Harvard University (MA) were swept up in allegations of plagiarism during a take-home exam. After an in-depth investigation by the school, more than half of them were asked to withdraw from the university.

While Harvard's elite status made this a big news event, the school is hardly alone in enrolling students willing to pull a fast one. Based on surveys that he conducted over decades, Donald McCabe, a professor at Rutgers Business School (NJ) and a leading authority on cheating, believes about two-thirds of college students are likely to cheat on assignments ranging from homework to tests.

This story appeared in the March 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology.

While it's tempting to bemoan the loss of ethics in today's youth, the root causes of the cheating epidemic are probably more complicated. Indeed, as the Harvard cheating case illustrates, the very definition of cheating itself may need to be reexamined as collaborative learning comes to the fore.

One thing is clear: It's much easier for students to cheat than ever before, thanks in large part to technology. Internet access allows students to hit cheat sites and paper mills, copy off websites, and "collaborate" with fellow students. Too many students are lifting ideas, passages--entire papers--and passing the work off as their own. Who is responsible for this breakdown? The students alone, their parents, faculty, the schools--all of the above? And how can the problem be resolved?

Taking an optimistic view of the situation, if technology plays a role in facilitating student cheating, it also has the potential to fix it. At the very least, it can act as a virtual policeman in identifying cheaters. But educators are hoping that technology can assume a more preventive role as well, helping teach students what's acceptable and change poor writing habits.

Picking Up Good Citations
This education must start at the very beginning--with citations. Even though today's collaborative learning environment can make it difficult to determine whether students are wrongly cribbing off one another, nobody is arguing against the need to cite sources. After all, even Twitter offers a re-tweet feature. "We need to give credit where credit is due," sums up John Moravec, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Minnesota and author of the digital book Knowmad Society. "We need to recognize that ideas don't just emerge from nowhere."

Nor from student brains, it seems. If the statistics are to be believed, many student ideas actually originate at, whose essay text turned up 2.4 million times in student papers between July 2011 and June 2012. That's 1.6 million times more than content from that most august of references, The New York Times, which had a comparatively paltry 769,000 matches. This research comes from iParadigms, maker of Turnitin for Educators, which analyzed more than 37 million student papers submitted to the service during that period.

How much plagiarism stems from bald-faced cheating and how much from ignorance is unclear. Henry Loya teaches English 99, a "crash course in persuasive composition," at Citrus College in Southern California. The course is intended to help students who are not quite at college level, but Loya spends a lot of time discussing plagiarism, doing citations, and paraphrasing.

Recently, one of his students--newly armed with Loya's lessons in avoiding plagiarism--shared a story about how she tried to help her brother, who was enrolled at another college, handle citations for a paper. His response was, "No, I got it, I got it." Apparently he didn't. Nailed for plagiarism, he was suspended from all classes for the semester.

Such punishment often comes as a surprise to students, notes Loya: "I make it really clear that, even if it works out in their favor, they're probably still going to have to go to a hearing, and they're probably going to get pulled out of class. It's not pleasant at all."

And yet it still happens, says Loya. Students think they can get away with it, or they don't really understand what he's trying to teach them. In his view, the topic of plagiarism is one of those lessons that requires instructors not just to tell students, but to show them--repeatedly. "You have to reteach it and reteach it," he explains. "Students have to be taught progressively over time. Then they begin to get a really in-depth understanding."

To reinforce his teaching, Loya has sought help from technology. Over the last year, he has come to rely on Turnitin for Educators, which integrates with the college's Blackboard installation. Now when students submit a paper through the LMS, they click a button titled "Originality."

Turnitin "immediately lights up and color codes everything in their papers that's already been submitted [whether archived somewhere on the internet, in a repository of publications, or in works submitted directly to Turnitin]," Loya explains. The program highlights streams of words that have appeared elsewhere--and how many times those particular word streams have been used. The program also passes judgment on the paper overall: A "similarity" score is displayed at the top of the screen, telling students how much of their text has been lifted from other sources. "It's amazing," enthuses Loya.

If students know they're at risk of plagiarizing, they can rewrite and resubmit the paper. This part of the process is useful, claims Loya, because it allows students to "learn on their own as well as learn from me." It also puts the onus on students to do the work properly. "Students can see they're going to be caught," he explains, "so they have a chance to right the ship."

If a paper still contains plagiarized passages after it's been submitted, Turnitin alerts the instructor. But Loya doesn't rely totally on Turnitin to smell a rat. At times, student work will pass the Turnitin sniff test but not his own. "Whenever students start sounding as if they have a Ph.D., you know they've probably plagiarized," he says. In instances like these, he gives students an opportunity to revisit their papers to ensure that the work is original.

For Loya, it's the combination of technology and his own teaching that has made his efforts to combat plagiarism successful. One without the other, he believes, would not be nearly as effective.

Online Reading vs. Print
Technology like Turnitin addresses one phase of the writing process--evaluating what has already been written--but even reaching that point is difficult for many students. Indeed, the research phase is often the real problem area, leading students to take shortcuts in their work.

That's because students don't know how to do deep reading anymore, believes Dorothy Mikuska, founder of ePen&Inc., whose PaperToolsPro product helps students take research notes. While acknowledging that some students are just lazy or ethically challenged, she blames reading online for much of the plagiarism that takes place. In fact, she goes so far as to say that incidents of plagiarism have increased since online reading has come to dominate study habits. The reason? "We read online differently from how we read on paper," she notes.

A high school English teacher for 36 years, Mikuska points to 2006 research by Jakob Nielsen showing that when people read web pages, their eyes tend to move in an "F" pattern: First, they read in a horizontal line across the upper part of the content, then jump down the page for several lines before reading across the line again--but not quite to the end--before scanning the left side of the content again. This differs from how most people read paper-based content, where the eyes follow an "E" pattern--following a line of text across, dropping down a line, across, down, and so on.

"You're reading fast," Mikuska says about online work, "and you're skimming rather than thinking about what you're reading." On top of that, online articles have multiple distractions built in, such as links to related content and ads. "You read about 18 percent of what's on the page, so you can't really understand it. You're not interested in going any further and you click somewhere else."

Plagiarism occurs, explains Mikuska, when students under deadline can't figure out the research material because their reading isn't deep enough. In such circumstances, copy-and-paste tends to be the only solution. "It isn't necessarily intentional," she adds. "I think there is a lot of unintentional plagiarism."

PaperToolsPro isn't a plagiarism checker per se. Instead, it's designed to help students avoid committing plagiarism in the first place. The web-based tool features a text window where students copy-and-paste or drag-and-drop an original passage that they read online. In a box right below, students then rewrite the passage in their own words, adding an identifier and a few keywords. In this way, they create a collection of notes that form the building blocks of their research paper. By having students work in small bites, the program forces students to do deep analysis of text. "You are forcing them to think about what they're reading," explains Mikuska. "If they're looking at long passages, they skim through them."

The goal is to force students to think about the research as they do it, and consider how one piece of information connects to others, "so they create a scaffold of learning." The program also accepts information that can be used to generate a bibliography and citations, and also allows for teacher-to-student or student-to-student communication via brief notes.

But PaperToolsPro deliberately doesn't tell students if they are guilty of plagiarism. Mikuska contemplated adding this option to the product but decided against it. She doesn't want to give students a shortcut for finding red-flag areas in their papers, because all they would do "is go in and dither with it." According to Mikuska, such an approach "doesn't teach kids anything other than how to dodge the bullet. They don't learn how to do research. They learn how to avoid getting caught."

Replicating Past Thinking
While online reading may be partially to blame for student struggles with plagiarism, Minnesota's Moravec fingers a couple of other culprits--one straightforward, the other more complex.

The simple explanation for at least some plagiarism is that it's culturally driven. "You're more likely to see it from international students who just want to provide the correct answer," explains Moravec. "That's coming out as a cultural expression rather than a crime." The antidote? Continue educating students about what plagiarism is and why it shouldn't be done.

But the bigger failure, according to Moravec, can be laid at the doorstep of colleges and universities themselves, which "engage in activities that really encourage us to replicate past thinking, past ideas…providing an open savannah for plagiarism to thrive." The solution, he says, is to encourage students to "pursue new pathways and formulate new ways for self-expression."

"[The educational system] is designed to beat creativity out of students," claims Moravec, noting that the process is better suited to "producing factory workers and government bureaucrats." Only when students reach the doctoral level of study does the situation change. "It's the first time in our educational experience where we ask each other, 'What do you think?' Rather than looking for the 'correct answer,' we want students to produce some new ideas and be creative."

Although Moravec's institution has plagiarism-checking resources, he chooses not to use them. "They tend to provide false positives," he says. And he's not persuaded that these services are as protective of private student data as they should be.

But that doesn't mean he's anti-technology--to the contrary. He readily admits that 60-plus pages of his doctoral thesis were written by an algorithm that he ran on some "boring statistics," a process that took about two hours. Even though he was upfront about what he did, nobody on his doctoral committee cared. "They were going for the ideas," he explains. "It wasn't so much about how it was done." Was he cheating, Moravec ponders, "or was I using technology effectively?"

In Moravec's mind, perhaps it's time to reconsider the merits of original writing and go in an entirely different direction: "Maybe what we've been doing just isn't relevant anymore, putting students through endless paper-writing exercises, when machines will do that for us or [we] can outsource it to somebody in India." In his view, it would be better to encourage people to do "much more creative work that reflects their own personal knowledge," which, in turn, will encourage them to cite the work of others.

He promotes the idea of having students write from knowledge gained by connecting with "communities, businesses, governments, families, etc., instead of writing a paper that repeats course content for the benefit of the instructor." What exactly would this look like? In a business education program, for example, Moravec says "students could make real pitches to solve real problems--and potentially for real money."

Harvard Scandal: Cheating or Collaborative Learning?

The August announcement that 125 students in a single class at Harvard University (MA) were under investigation for cheating--with more than half subsequently forced to withdraw from the school--made headlines around the world. The news conjured up images of entitled youths who somehow felt that the rules didn't apply to them. But how much truth is really behind the media coverage?

While some of the students were undeniably cheating, according to reports in The Harvard Crimson, others seem to have been caught in a gray area where neither faculty nor students fully understood the rules. An article in The New York Times indicates that students in the course, an Introduction to Congress, were encouraged to work together and, as a result, often ended up sharing notes. Some students even reported receiving help on the take-home exam from the course's teaching assistants.

Putting aside those students who were out-and-out cheats, the broader crisis appears to have its roots in the rise of collaborative learning on campus--and holds a valuable lesson for institutions nationwide. While collaborative learning has been touted as the next best thing in higher education, the Harvard mess makes it abundantly clear that it must take place within specified parameters. Whether these guidelines are implemented on a campuswide basis or course by course, students and faculty need to have a clear understanding of what forms of collaboration are acceptable and when. Failing that, the Harvard cheating scandal promises to be only the first of many.

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