By Pam Coke
Off and on throughout our teaching career we are faced with the issue of plagiarism. Compounding the issue today are some unique 21st Century challenges. Digital technology, cyberspace and the Internet—by virtue of their existence—present new opportunities for the disingenuous, tech-savvy student to plagiarize electronically.
As teachers we need to be on top of this; be able to recognize and combat electronic cheating—eCheating—as vigorously as any other form of plagiarism.
Kim McMurtry (2001) never envisioned "the difficulties she would encounter with electronic cheating" when she began her teaching career in 1997. In 2001 she published a T.H.E Journal article in which she offered eight suggestions for combating the problem. The full text is accessible on line at e-cheating: Combating a 21st Century Challenge. Here are her suggestions, somewhat abbreviated:
1. Most colleges and universities have academic integrity policies in place to discourage cheating. Take time to explain and discuss these with your students. Plagiarism is not just academically dishonest, it's illegal.
As attorney Ronald Standler explains: "Any work created in the USA after March 1, 1989, is automatically protected by copyright, even if there is no copyright notice attached…the owner of the copyright ... could sue the plagiarist in federal court." In addition, some states have enacted statutes specifically prohibiting the sale of a "term paper, essay, report, thesis or dissertation" to students (Standler 2000).
2. Most college courses require at least one written assignment with a research component. Design yours to meet specific goals. Avoid general instructions. For example: "Using at least five sources, write a five-page paper on something related to this course," is far too general. Be more specific. Define the research goal, the writing purpose and the audience your students should be addressing.
Limit the topic choices as well and specify the paper's page length and the number of sources to cite. Encourage higher-order research thinking and require your students to use the format and documentation style of your discipline.
The more specific you are, the more difficult your potential plagiarist will find it to locate an online paper that fits the assignment. When a student does shortcut through the Internet and turn in a downloaded paper, you will probably notice some incongruities—things that don't measure up to his or her previous work.
For example, to satisfy a five-page research paper assignment with a five-source requirement, one of my freshman comp students turned in an online magazine article. Not only was the paper superbly written—beyond the student's skill level—but it also cited 20 sources, not typical conduct from this, or any student for that matter, writing a five-page paper.
3. Know what's available online before assigning your paper. If you're going to assign a research paper on the Kennedy assassination, take a few minutes to see what's out there. Remember this: there are many tempting full-text, online magazines and journals.
In addition, many students upload their papers to display their work and there are teachers who do the same, providing samples or displaying the work of previous students. Look up a few Web paper mills and a search engine or two. Here is a sampling of what's out there in the paper mill department.
Here's a lesson from my first-year experience teaching freshman composition. In the second semester my students receive an introduction to interpreting and writing about literature. After reading several short stories they must write about one. Out of 61 students, five turned in downloaded papers. The tip-off came when two students inadvertently submitted identical essays.
After the fact I discovered numerous online essays about William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," and Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path." The following year I changed the assignment and chose a more recent author. After an online search I determined that essays on Cormac McCarthy's novel, "All the Pretty Horses," were harder to find.
4. Give your students enough time to do an assignment. Keep in mind they are juggling assignments in several classes. Help them plan by giving them enough advance notice that an upcoming assignment requires research. Consider requiring that proposals, outlines, annotated bibliographies—or at least a topic idea—be submitted early on: Students who put off starting an assignment until the last minute are more likely to seek shortcuts.
5. Consider requiring oral presentations or have students submit a letter of transferal briefly explaining their thesis statement, research process, etc. Both of these tasks discourage plagiarism.
6. Have your students submit their work electronically. Whether by e-mail to a shared directory on your campus network, or via portable CD, electronically submitted papers can be easily archived. Organize them in electronic file folders according to topic. They will be at your fingertips from then on and you'll feel a lot more comfortable about repeating the assignment in succeeding years.
With an archive you'll be able to search keywords and phrases whenever a paper sounds "oddly" familiar. For example, one student submitted a personal essay on her experience transferring from a large, state institution to a small, private college. The next year, another student submitted the same essay. I immediately recognized it: Using the essay's first sentence I performed a search of my archive and located it quickly.
7. When you suspect a student of eCheating try using a free full-text search engine like Google, Yahoo!, or MSN to investigate further. If a paper doesn't sound like a student's previous work or seem to match his or her skill level, if it doesn't fit the course level or the assignment, just enter a phrase from the paper, or the title itself, into the search bar. See what turns up. Check the citations your students provide as well. Sometimes they will actually provide the URL—Web address—to a downloaded paper in the list of works cited.
8. Consider subscribing to a plagiarism search service. These online services, some of which are free, will compare a student's text to their database of papers as well as to other Internet databases and Web pages. When plagiarism is suspected—highly probable, in other words—they provide an email report highlighting the exact phrase matches detected and links to the Web pages on which they were found. Here are a couple of links to some reputable plagiarism search services.
How prevalent is electronic cheating on college campuses? If you listen to a plagiarism search service, it's rampant. Is it true? Not necessarily. Don't forget your grain of salt; these services have something to sell. Stats are always suspect, colored you might say, by whomever they are produced.
What is not arguable is that eCheating is a very tempting quick-fix for any student finding themselves in a jam. It's our responsibility as educators to be aware of these electronic temptations, vigilant in guarding against them and proactive in helping students maintain their academic integrity.
Again, to learn more, I recommend the full text of Kim McMurtry's article, accessible online at e-cheating: Combating a 21st Century Challenge.
McMurtry, Kim (2001). e-cheating: Combating a 21st Century Challenge. T.H.E.Journal. Retrieved October 25, 2007, from http://thejournal.com/articles/2001/11/01/echeating-combating-a-21st-century-challenge.aspx