Technology Sniffs Out Student Plagiarism Assignment

The digital red flag drew James Davids forward in his desk chair.

His computer was telling him that 42 percent of a student's research paper contained wording "similar" to information on the Internet, or to other student papers. It needed a closer look.

Davids, an assistant dean at Regent University, had just begun wading through 35 papers from his graduate-level Constitutional Law II class.

One of his first steps these days is to run some of the papers through a software program designed to detect stolen writings and ideas.

Plagiarism detection programs have become increasingly popular on college campuses now that Internet research has become standard and students have discovered the ease of cutting and pasting information.

The Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University reported that 10 percent of students surveyed in 1999 admitted doing so without properly crediting the source. By 2005, the percentage was almost 40 percent. And 77 percent said they didn't think such cheating was a serious issue.

"It's endemic," Davids said.

A mouse click from Davids eliminated matches on the student paper that used quotation marks — those were legitimate. That dropped the "similar" wording to 13 percent.

Plagiarism on campus grabbed the state's attention in 2001 when a University of Virginia physics professor, acting on a tip, checked student papers using a homemade computer program. The school eventually charged 158 students with plagiarism.

Nineteen months later, 20 students had been found guilty of honor violations and kicked out, another 28 admitted guilt and left the school on their own, and 90 students were exonerated. The rest received lesser punishments or treatment, such as counseling, the university reported.

Until a couple of years ago, Regent professors might have checked suspicious passages using the search engine Google, by poring through professional journals, or not at all.

They since have joined Old Dominion University and Virginia Wesleyan College in using such software to help detect plagiarism. One of the most popular software programs, Turnitin, is used by thousands of colleges and high schools in more than 90 countries, according to its Web site.

Regent pays $2,941 per year for the program.

It doesn't determine plagiarism — that's still for professors to decide. Was the copied work an intentional act or a sloppy one, the more common fault?

But it compares student writings with billions of documents — Internet, professional journals, Turnitin's database of other student papers — and highlights matching passages and provides the sources. Each check can take minutes up to a couple of hours, depending on traffic.

"You put the fear of God into them," Davids said. "'I've got this tool. I'm going to use this tool. So watch out.'"

One of Davids' past students, a lover of long paragraphs, turned in a paper that was suspiciously easier to read than past ones. It reminded Davids of The Chronicle of Higher Education. A check showed an 83 percent match with writing in that journal.

And one student paper scored 100 percent — she had put her name on another student's paper that happened to be in the database. A repeat offender, she was kicked out, said Bruce Winston, dean of the School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship.

"If Turnitin finds it, Turnitin always wins," he tells students. "That was one student out of thousands out of 10 years of doctoral students."

It also works the other way: Winston said a check prevented him from accusing a student who turned in a seemingly too-good-to-be-true paper. Davids, who's working on his doctorate, said he runs his own work through the program to make sure he's not inadvertently breaking attribution rules.

Regent students — even some who didn't realize their professors had such tools — didn't seem to mind. They cited examples of plagiarism at their previous schools — including one where the student didn't bother to change the first-person tense of the stolen writing.

"I've always been taught that your ideas or others' ideas are as much your property as your car," said Chuck Slemp, a dual graduate and law student from Pennington Gap.

Students who take shortcuts, "when they go out in the marketplace, they devalue my degree," said Stephen Raper of Chesapeake, a graduate student.

Still looking at the electronic report on his student's paper, Davids saw that, not surprisingly for a government class, most of the remaining matches were proper names of people or laws. No problems there.

But one sentence still stuck out.

"It's only 13 words," Davids said, "but they're not her words. She wouldn't write that way."

So he'll probably send her the report with a reminder: "Be diligent."

Because someone's watching.

Man of the moment: Matthew Keogh of writemyassignments.com. Picture by Dave Meehan

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    Man of the moment: Matthew Keogh of writemyassignments.com. Picture by Dave Meehan

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Trinity College has warned students who use a website offering to help them with essays that they could be breaking the university's rules on plagiarism.

Cheating continues to be a major problem at third level and affects all Irish universities and institutes of technology.

Last month the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) started an external inquiry into how it dealt with complaints about plagiarism.

The case involved a student who gained access to an instructor's manual that contained sample answers to questions. The manual was supposed to be only accessible to staff using computer passwords.

The student in the school of business was found guilty by an inquiry and had marks deducted, but he still managed to graduate. An external investigator is now looking at how the case was handled.

The issue of plagiarism in the third-level sector has again come to the fore after the opening in February of the website, writemyassignments.com.

Based in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, the business offers to help Irish students with their assignments in a vast range of Irish third level courses.

The essays supplied by the company are written by graduates who have reached a degree standard of 2.1 or first.

The prices paid depend on the length of the assignment -- ranging from €280 for a 3,000-word project up to €450 for a longer document.

Over 70 assignments have so far been ordered by students. The website also offers help with proof-reading of course work, and helps with theses.

A spokeswoman for Trinity College said students using websites such as writemyassignments.com are in breach of the university's regulations on plagiarism.

This covers "enlisting another person or persons to complete an assignment on the student's behalf''.

On its website, writemyassignments.com states: "Your assignment will be completed by a postgraduate mentor who has completed your specific course which ensures an understanding of what is required to achieve optimum results.''

Contacted by the Irish Independent, the website's co-founder Matthew Keogh denied that the site was encouraging plagiarism.

He said: "We are a legitimate business. We provide a mentoring service for students, and the documents we provide are to be used as a guideline only.''

Asked about the name of the business, "Write My Assignments'', Mr Keogh said: "It is just an eye-catcher in order to get our names in the media.''

Mr Keogh set up the business with a partner Michael Noble after graduating from an entrepreneurship course at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dun Laoghaire. Mr Noble has since stepped back from the business.

A recent survey of 681 students by the TCD Students Union newspaper, The University Times, showed that 54% of students had contravened the college's plagiarism policy by enlisting the help of a friend to complete an assignment.

The survey also found that over 70% of students either have no knowledge or "only some knowledge'' of Trinity College's policies on plagiarism.

Academics in UCD report a similar lack of awareness of what constitutes plagiarism.

Some students may not even realise that they are obliged to credit material from the internet that is quoted verbatim, and they may plead innocence when they are caught.

"You do get students who believe that there is a right answer to everything, and it is only a matter of finding it," said one lecturer in a third level college. "They don't see that there is a problem with copying whole sections of text from the internet.

"If I suspect that a passage of text has appeared elsewhere, I type a few phrases into Google, and I often find it," said the lecturer.

Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, former President of Dublin City University and currently Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, said: "Part of the problem is that students now don't always recognise the importance and value of independent work.''

Prof von Prondzynski said there were computer programs that could detect cheating, but these were not always perfect.

Plagiarism is not just a problem at third level. James McDermott, lecturer in law at UCD, said students should be taught how to process information from the internet when they are in school.

"Students need to be told how to cite their sources properly,'' said the law lecturer.

He said the prevalence of plagiarism was one reason why the Leaving Cert should continue to rely on exams.

"The trouble with course work is that it is so easy to cheat on it,'' said James McDermott. "It is hard to stop students getting help from parents or teachers, or copying material from the internet.''

The internet may have made rampant copying easier, but it has always been a feature of university life.

Professor von Prondzynski recalled how he was once acting as an external examiner at another university.

As he looked through an essay on trade union law, it struck him that some of the passages were familiar. He then realised that he had written the material himself in a book on the subject. The student had copied an entire chapter from the book.

The craftier copiers do not just pilfer material from one source, however. As the old saying goes, "If you steal from one author it's plagiarism; if you steal from many it's research.''

Irish Independent

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