Beating Web cheaters at their own game

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's an issue older than Socrates, one that tests the temptations of anonymity and decisions that are made at night and alone.

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.

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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."

That psychological deterrence is exactly what Barrie hopes for. "The only way to stop digital plagiarism," he says, "is to create a centralized database of intellectual property that term papers can be checked against."

Barrie - whose service boasts 20,000 registered users in 19 countries - estimates that 30 percent of the work Turnitin.com receives is unoriginal, and 85 percent of that unoriginal work was cribbed from the Web. "Students are using the World Wide Web as a multibillion-page, digital, searchable, cut-and-paste encyclopedia," he says.

Last year, in Dr. McCabe's study of 4,500 high school students, 72 percent admitted to at least one instance of serious cheating on written work. In his analysis, the Internet has created few new cheaters - only five percent of students have engaged in Internet plagiarism and not another form of cheating - but McCabe suggests that digital deceit can be addictive in its anonymity and ease. "I think the Internet has resulted in those who are plagiarizing doing it more often," he says.

Stephen Davis, professor emeritus of psychology at Emporia State University in Kansas, agrees. He's surveyed 14,000 college students on academic dishonesty, 500 on Web-based cheating.

"We see a lot of students who use the Internet for less than self-enrichment," he says.

Dr. Davis's research shows not only changing patterns in cheating, but a change in student psychology. He says there's been a rise in external motivation - the lure of material gain. And when students are frustrated, he says, they often rationalize cheating by blaming "the teacher who made the test too hard."

Experts caution that not all cheating is malicious, and that many students simply don't realize that copying off the Internet without citing sources is wrong. "There's an attitude that if it's on the Internet, it's public knowledge, and therefore it doesn't need to be cited," McCabe says.

With today's emphasis on teamwork comes another fuzzy line - the question of where collaboration becomes cheating. "Students talk about the fact that in the corporate world today, nobody expects you to be able to solve a difficult problem by yourself," McCabe says.

Mike Porter, an English teacher at Ponderosa High School in Parker, Colo., says he has two approaches to prevent cut-and-paste plagiarism: setting deadlines before the final paper is due - for preliminary research, a rough draft, and a bibliography - and knowing students' writing. "If I have a struggling student who suddenly comes up with Shakespearean prose, that's a warning sign," he says.

Students aren't always suave in deception. Mr. Porter recalls one student who turned in an essay with the Web address of a term-paper mill still typed at the bottom of each page; Davis remembers two freshmen turning in the exact same paper, freshly downloaded, in an introductory psychology class; and Whitman describes a student who, though he didn't plagiarize his paper, relied on an Internet site about Abraham Lincoln - and was surprised to learn later that he'd been quoting from a fifth-grader.

Two years ago, Educational Testing Services, in conjunction with the National Ad Council, launched a campaign urging students not to cheat. Called "The Ref in Your Head," the commercials ran on national prime-time television and portrayed students confronting - and refusing - temptation, as referees clad in black caps and striped shirts popped out of their heads to blow whistles.

As the digital domain expands, the challenge - in schools and on the Web - is to make those referees real, while maintaining trust on both sides of the field. "It puts the incentive on us as teachers to change formatting, change topics, stay fresh," says Porter. "We have to force kids to reinvent the wheel - or at least write a new paper."

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