by Barbara Black
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 its always present on every campus, festering under
Last fall, Concordias 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.
Its 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 Shavers 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 doesnt deal with such types of fraud
as custom-made papers.
Sauvé said that Concordia Libraries doesnt 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
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 whats 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 doesnt really belong to them. Other reasons for rejecting those
products might be pricing and their limitations in coverage.
Concordia professor tests
English Professor John Miller tried a free trial offered by a Web site
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
Millers conclusion: Its 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.
Im 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, theyd prefer to face the instructor in
the morning about their problems with the essay rather than jeopardize
their academic integrity. But it doesnt 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.
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