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e-cheating: Combating a 21st Century Challenge

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When I began teaching college English four years ago, I was enthusiastic about new opportunities for using technology in the classroom. I had visions of students learning to write essays with a computer rather than a pencil, realizing the ease of editing their work; enjoying the speed with which they could write and rewrite; discovering how to research using online databases and search engines; and submitting their work and receiving comments and grades electronically. I was not naive, though; I anticipated challenges with reluctant or skeptical students and inevitable technical problems with hardware and software. I did not, however, envision the difficulties I would encounter with electronic cheating.

Yes, computers have made many tasks easier. No longer must a student retype an entire paper just to add in a paragraph or even a footnote. No longer must a student visit a library to use a card catalog for research, or to read a journal article or even a book. But also, no longer must a student retype a paper that someone else has written in order to put their own name on it. The student can just copy the text from the Web, paste it into their word processing program, type their name at the top, print it out and hand it in; or in some classes, submit it digitally to the professor online or by e-mail. As Lisa Renard said recently in an Educational Leadership article (vol. 57, no. 4), "Educators unaware of the possibilities and resources available to computer-age students are at the mercy of these technologically hip kids."

The Frequency of Plagiarism

The purpose of this article is not to discuss ethical issues or to examine the downfall of American values, but let me give you some statistics. First of all, it's impossible to determine the actual frequency of cheating. Out of the 61 students in my English composition classes in spring 1999, I caught five plagiarists, all of whom had downloaded papers from the Web. That's 8 percent and there may have been more plagiarized papers I did not catch, copied from books or journals, sold by another student, etc. But we do have the self-reports of students, which offer a glimpse of the problem. For example, a 1998 survey from Who's Who Among American High School Students reported that of 3,123 students, 80 percent of them "admitted to cheating on an exam, a 10-point increase since the question was first asked 15 years ago" (Bushweller 1999). In addition, 50 percent of them "did not believe cheating was necessarily wrong," and 95 percent of those who had cheated "said they have never been caught" (Kleiner and Lord 1999). According to the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University, 75 percent of all college students "confess to cheating at least once" (Kleiner and Lord 1999). This finding confirms earlier studies by Baird, and by Stern and Havlicek, who reported that between 70 percent and 85 percent of American college students "engaged in some form of cheating" (Lupton, Chapman and Weiss vol. 75, no. 4).

Cheating and the Web

There are several ways a student can use the Internet to cheat on a writing assignment. The easiest way is to type a topic into a search engine like Yahoo!, find a Web page that someone has posted on that topic with the requisite number of words, copy the text and paste it into a word processing program. Another possibility is to share assignments with friends at other schools - one student can simply e-mail a paper as an attachment to another student. For example, one of my students submitted a paper that I found to be the text from an online magazine article. When I confronted the student about it, he said he had never seen the online article; a friend at another college had e-mailed him the paper, and he assumed that his friend had written it. But the most blatant form of e-cheating is the use of "Web paper mills," sites that collect and distribute papers on the Web, either free or for a fee.

In a cursory search for these paper mill sites, I found more than 30. Such sites are easy to find - just type "free essays" into any Web search engine - and easy to use. However, many of these sites duplicate the same database of papers for whatever reason. For example, 15000Papers.com, Phuck School (www.phuckschool.com) and T.O.P. Thousands of Papers (www.termpapers-on-file.com) are all owned by The Paper Store and appear to offer the same collection of papers.

And with names like Evil House of Cheat, most of these sites claim to assist students in cheating and boast slogans such as "Download your workload." However, some offer interesting disclaimers, like this one from EssayWorld.com: "The purpose of Essayworld.com is to provide an additional resource for students to obtain information and additional ideas from the insights of fellow students. Plagiarism is a serious offense and Essayworld.com d'es not condone or encourage plagiarism. By continuing the use of this site, you acknowledge that Essayworld.com will in no way, shape or form, be held responsible for the improper use of the contents of this site. Information obtained from the essays on Essayworld.com should be treated as if it were acquired from a book and be cited in the references. Should you need instructions on how to cite information obtained from essays on the Internet, please visit our Resources section." Such disclaimers appear to be an effort to avoid liability.

Students perusing these sites can find papers in any discipline, from biology to business, from chemistry to computer science, from health to history, from philosophy to physics. The majority of these sites, however, provide papers on high school rather than college topics. For example, literature papers tend to focus on books like The Great Gatsby and A Tale of Two Cities. In addition, many of the sites, although apparently not owned by the same entity, offer the same papers. For example, I found the same essay on irony in Kate Chopin's Story of an Hour in EssayWorld.com, in Planet Papers (www.planetpapers.com) and in Other People's Papers (www.oppapers.com). Some of these sites even require you to submit a paper to gain access to their collection of papers. I suspect what students have done is taken a paper from a free site and submitted it to one of these sites, resulting in duplications like this. The cost of papers from these Web paper mills ranges from free to varying prices per page. The sites that require payment provide abstracts of papers with particulars, including word count, number of sources used, and sometimes grade received and course level. Many sites also offer custom essays with costs ranging from $18.95 to $35 per page.

Combating E-Cheating

The ease of finding and downloading papers from sites like these makes plagiarism very tempting. How can an instructor combat e-cheating? I have eight suggestions:

1. Take time to explain and discuss your academic honesty policy. Most colleges and universities have academic integrity policies in place to discourage cheating. And plagiarism is also a legal issue, as attorney Ronald Standler explains: "Any work created in the USA after March 1, 1989, is automatically protectedby copyright, even if there is no copyright notice attached to the work," and "the owner of the copyright ... could sue the plagiarist in federal court." In addition, some states have statutes against the sale of a "term paper, essay, report, thesis or dissertation" to students (Standler 2000).

2. Design writing assignments with specific goals and instructions. Most college courses require at least one written assignment with a research component. Don't assign a general paper like, "Write a five-page paper on anything related to the course, using at least five sources." Give specific instructions. Determine what your goal is for the student writing that research paper, and give the student a purpose for writing and an audience to write to. Limit the topics the student may write about. Require the format and documentation style used in your discipline. Be specific about length and the number of sources required. Encourage higher-order thinking rather than easily obtainable plot summaries and character analyses. The more specific your assignment is, the more difficult it will be for the potential plagiarist to find a paper online that fits the assignment. And if the cheating student still tries to take shortcuts and turn in a downloaded paper, you will probably be tipped off by something that d'esn't fit. For example, in a freshman composition class I assigned a five-page research paper with a five-source requirement. One student downloaded an article from an online magazine and turned it in. Not only was the paper superbly written - beyond the skill level of that student -but it also cited 20 sources, which is not likely for any student on a five-page paper.

3. Know what's available online before assigning a paper. If you're thinking of having your students research the John F. Kennedy assassination, take a few minutes to see what your students might find online. Check out a few of the Web paper mills as well as a search engine or two. Remember, many papers are available just as Web pages by students wanting to display their work, by teachers displaying student work or even by teachers providing sample papers for their students. In addition, there are many full-text magazines and journals available online, and students may also be tempted to download articles to turn in, as one of my students did. This is the lesson I learned after my first year of teaching freshman composition. In the second semester of composition, my students get an introduction to interpreting and writing about literature. Students read several short stories and choose one to write about. Out of 61 students, five decided to turn in papers downloaded from the Internet. I was easily tipped off when two students submitted identical essays, each not realizing that the other had also copied the paper from the Internet. I discovered, after the fact, that there are numerous essays available online on 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. I chose a more recent novel for the students to read, Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, did some online searching and determined that it would be sufficiently difficult for a student to find any prewritten essays on it.

4. Give students enough time to do an assignment. Keep in mind that students are juggling assignments in several classes. Help them plan their work by giving them enough advance notice of any assignment that requires research. You might even consider requiring that students submit a research proposal, an outline, an annotated bibliography or at least a topic idea early on. Students who have put off starting an assignment until the last minute are more likely to seek shortcuts, like plagiarism.

5. Require oral presentations of student papers or have students submit a letter of transferal to you, explaining briefly their thesis statement, research process, etc. Both of these tasks will discourage plagiarism.

6. Have students submit essays electronically. Whether via e-mail, to a shared directory on the campus network or on a diskette, this provides the opportunity for you to archive your students' essays electronically. Keep them organized in directories according to the assigned topic. Then, you can feel confident about assigning the same topics each semester or each year. If a student paper sounds familiar, simply do a word or a phrase search on that directory. 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, when another student submitted the same essay, I immediately recognized it and was able to perform a search of my essay archive using the essay's first sentence and located it quickly.

7. When you suspect e-cheating, use a free full-text search engine like AltaVista or Digital Integrity (www.find-same.com). If a submitted paper d'esn't sound like that student, d'esn't seem to fit the course level or d'esn't seem to fit the assignment, take a phrase from the paper or the title of the paper and type it into a search engine. Or, if the student provides Web addresses as source citations, check them out. Sometimes, a student who has downloaded a paper from the Internet will actually provide that Web address in the list of works cited.

8. Consider subscribing to a plagiarism search service, like Plagiarism.org or IntegriGuard. For example, Plagiarism.org compares a student's text to its database of papers as well as to Internet databases and Web pages, providing a report highlighting exact phrase matches and links to the matching pages. The annual fee for this service is $150, plus $1 per document, purchased in $50 blocks. Plagiarism.org provides a free trial service of five documents, so at least try it out. IntegriGuard (www.integriguard.com) offers two ways of combating plagiarism. Its HowOriginal.com site works just like Plagiarism.org's service: submit a paper, it compares it to its database of papers as well as to Web searches and provides a report showing any matching phrases it finds. IntegriGuard also offers a $4.95 per month service through its PaperBin.com site. The instructor pays the monthly fee, and all of the instructor's students submit their own papers to the site. These papers get added to IntegriGuard's paper database, and the instructor receives an e-mail report if it detects that any of the papers have been plagiarized. I also routinely use HowOriginal.com because it's free and I have found it effective.

E-cheating is quick, easy and very tempting for students. I encourage educators to be aware of the possibilities and do what they can to help students maintain academic integrity.


To Cheat or Not to Cheat...

Here are some quotes from college students that exemplify the problem, as reported in U.S. News & World Report (Kleiner and Lord 1999):

- After lifting a paper from the Web and turning it in, a student at the University of Alabama said: "I realize that it's wrong, but I don't feel bad about it, either, partly because I know everyone else is doing it."

- And after copying a friend's programming assignment and turning it in, a student at Duke University said: "... there are times that you cheat because there aren't enough hours in the day. ... I understood how to do it; I just didn't have the time."


References

Bushweller, Kevin. 1999. "Generation of Cheaters." The American School Board Journal, April. Online: www.asbj.com/199904/0499coverstory.html.

Kleiner, Carolyn, and Mary Lord. 1999. "The Cheating Game: 'Everyone's Doing It,' From Grade School to Graduate School." U.S. News & World Report, November 2, 55-66.

Lupton, Robert A., Kenneth J. Chapman and John E. Weiss. "A Cross-National Exploration of Business Students' Attitudes, Perceptions, and Tendencies Toward Academic Dishonesty." Journal of Education for Business, 75 (4): 231-235.

Renard, Lisa. "Cut and Paste 101: Plagiarism and the Net." Educational Leadership, 57 (4): 38-42.

Standler, Ronald B. 2000. Plagiarism in Colleges in USA. Online: www.rbs2.com/plag.htm.

For a listing of Web paper mills visit:

www.thejournal.com/magazine/mcmurtry

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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