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January 24, 2002 Universities still confronted by student plagiarism



by Barbara Black

A dramatic case at Simon Fraser University last month in which 47 students turned in virtually the same economics paper raised the issue of plagiarism once again, but it’s always present on every campus, festering under the surface.

Last fall, Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Services sponsored a workshop on plagiarism for interested faculty members. Participants were reminded that not only do students have free access to the World Wide Web, but our libraries subscribe to more than 5,000 full-text electronic sources, including scholarly journals, magazines and newspapers, from which students might “borrow” material.

The Web also offers a proliferation of “paper mills” offering term papers and assignments for sale. Over 70 paper mill sites are listed in Yahoo, more than double the number listed in 1997. Major sites report from 2,000 to 10,000 visits a day. Most of these sites charge a fee. Some will custom-write a paper.

However, Professor Frances Shaver, who adjudicated more than 100 academic misconduct cases over her four years as Vice-Dean, Academic Affairs, in Arts and Science, said that most of the cases she saw involved inaccurate or sloppy attribution of sources in term papers and assignments rather than purchased material. Procrastination, time pressure and pressure to excel are major causes of handing in plagiarized work.

Some people blame a “consumer mentality” in universities — getting the work done to get the grades or the diploma, rather than to learn the material for its own sake. However, another contributing factor may be the willingness of some professors to turn a blind eye to cheating. Reference librarian Diane Sauvé was one of the presenters at the workshop. She said, “Lack of time and resources to deal with plagiarism were raised. Professors mentioned the trend towards larger classes and not having enough teaching assistants to help out, among other things.”

Some students patch-write — lift phrases and use them as their own — when they are trying to learn unfamiliar discourse.

“It’s even more difficult to write things in your own words if English is not your first language, or if you have very poor writing skills,” Sauvé said.

There may be a perception on the part of a few students that the Internet is “free” and therefore they can borrow from it without attribution, but Frances Shaver’s experience, based on more than 100 cases, is that while it may be careless, plagiarism is rarely innocent or unintentional.

Detection software is good, but prevention is better

Simon Fraser University will likely now take a look at an Internet service called Turnitin.com, according to the Vancouver Sun (Jan. 7). The same service was contracted by the University of British Columbia in the fall, in an effort to discourage plagiarism. The search engine compares students’ work to all written material is available on the Web in an effort to detect similarities.

Detection of plagiarism by electronic means is possible, but expensive and not comprehensive, librarian Diane Sauvé says.

“Search engines have limitations. None covers the entire Internet, so there is no guarantee that you will be able to trace a unique string of characters to its source by using them.” Also, the contents of subscription databases of e-journals are not indexed in search engines.

Some cheating not detected

Detection software/services (such as Turnitin.com) also have limitations, as they only compare papers submitted with their own database of term papers, which is limited and will not include most papers available from paper mills or other types of documents such as articles from journals. This doesn’t deal with such types of fraud as custom-made papers.

Sauvé said that Concordia Libraries doesn’t have any detection software. “Detection of plagiarism does not fall under the mandate of the library,” she explained. “In other universities, it is individual departments or the whole university who subscribe and pay for these services.

“What we can do in the library is help increase professors’ awareness of the variety of full-text online resources available to students, help them use search engines and some of our full-text databases if they need to track down a document that might have been used to plagiarize — but all search tools have limitations and cover only a fraction of what’s out there.”

Some institutions are reportedly reluctant to use turnitin.com because of the license agreement: the vendor keeps a copy of all papers submitted and adds them to its database, but since students are the authors of these papers, some universities felt uncomfortable with giving something over that doesn’t really belong to them. Other reasons for rejecting those products might be pricing and their limitations in coverage.

Concordia professor tests software

English Professor John Miller tried a free trial offered by a Web site called Plagiarism.org.

“I submitted a paper which I knew contained plagiarized material, and the report on the haystack included some of the needles I was looking for (but not all), in addition to hypodermics, space needles, and the occasional pencil.”

Miller’s conclusion: “It’s a rough tool at best. As Diane will have pointed out, it accesses only certain parts of the Web, is useless for books and articles which exist only in print form, and for ‘original’ essays which have been bought from an essay mill. The consolation is that those bought essays will be detected the second time they go into circulation.

“As an instructor, I try to impress on students in the first class that plagiarism is a very serious offence, pointing out that professional writers have lost their jobs and been disgraced for plagiarism.

“I’m sure we all hope to establish a working relationship with our students such that, if they find themselves caught in a middle-of-the-night temptation to plagiarize, they’d prefer to face the instructor in the morning about their problems with the essay rather than jeopardize their academic integrity. But it doesn’t always work that way.”

One suggestion from the experts is to ask students for topic proposals, idea outlines, interim working bibliographies and such, to ensure that they are not leaving their assignment to the last moment. Another is to get a sample of their writing, done in class, at the beginning of the terms, as a future basis of comparison with assignments.

Making the assignment unusual and intriguing makes it harder for the student to find a ready-made version on the Net, and is more likely to engage the genuine interest of the student. It will also pay off in their doing some original research and real learning.

Professor fights back with zero tolerance, strong support