Beating Web cheaters at their own game
It's an issue older than Socrates, one that tests the temptations of anonymity and decisions that are made at night and alone.Skip to next paragraph
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Cheating on schoolwork has simmered on as long as there have been students averse to studying. But the age of the Internet has woven a host of new twists on the perennial problem of plagiarism.
Websites offer instant access to thousands of student papers - for free, or custom-written for as little as $5 per page, or an infinite supply through lifetime memberships. Meanwhile, to many students, cheating is no big deal. A 1998 poll of top US high school students revealed that 80 percent had cheated - and 95 percent of those said they'd escaped detection.
It's enough to make schools start thinking hard about preemptive strikes. But in a culture in which copying without permission is as easy as MP3, the parameters of intellectual property are tricky - and raise new questions about where to draw the line between student trust and student freedom.
"Kids could cut and paste their way through high school if they wanted to," says Glenn Whitman, chairman of the history department at St. Andrew's Episcopal School, an independent day school in Potomac, Md. "One of my qualms about research now is that students immediately run to the Internet and see it as their savior for researching."
Last year, St. Andrew's went on the offensive. The school purchased Turnitin.com, an online service that compares student papers to a vast database of Internet documents. A suspect paper is scanned for similarities and returned with matching passages highlighted - accompanied by websites where the sources can be found.
This fall, St. Andrew's will require students to hand in every research paper in digital form as well as hard copy, to allow for easy scanning.
Anne Masciuch, head librarian and academic technology coordinator at St. Andrew's, led a series of workshops last year on plagiarism, and found that as teachers learned more, they became increasingly anxious.
By the end of the year, "papers came flying into the library" for scans. Ms. Masciuch estimates that in her two years at St. Andrew's, requests for plagiarism scans have doubled. She now receives about 30 requests annually; a little over half turn out to be real plagiarism.
But for schools with stringent honor codes, the threat of a digital watchdog ushers in questions of trust.
Don McCabe, founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University in Durham, N.C., sees a conflict between a school's vow to trust students and the routine use of antiplagiarism services. He's "not opposed" to checking papers with specific grounds for doubt, but insists that "the cornerstone of an effective honor code is that you trust students to be honest."
John Barrie, founder of Oakland, Calif.-based Turnitin.com, views high-tech plagiarism detection as a way to strengthen honor codes - a method more effective than policy or law, which have limited enforceability. He says that "the [failure] of honor-code schools to do anything about [digital plagiarism] is analogous to an ostrich having his head in the sand."
But Mr. Barrie doesn't advocate covert use of the service. He urges subscribers to tell students when they're being watched, and laments that nearly half the time, teachers submit papers without student knowledge.
St. Andrew's boasts both an honor code and a technological code of conduct, and Masciuch insists that she "would never think of applying [Turnitin] randomly to papers - only if there are specific grounds."
Mr. Whitman plans to showcase Turnitin for his history classes and use the program on his first big assignment this fall. "At some level," he says, "it's going to be a great scare tactic."