CyberWatch Column


Online Plagiarism


Professor of Computer Information Systems

Norwich University, Northfield, VT

This is another in a continuing series devoted to how ordinary people can protect themselves when using the Internet.

Last month, we looked at theft of intellectual property.  A different kind of fraud involving intellectual property is misrepresenting someone else’s work as if it were your own.  Older kids know intellectually that this is supposed to be bad, but for young children, this issue is completely abstract.  The problem today is that plagiarism is easier than ever and harder for teachers to detect.

Academic guidelines try make it clear to students that copying other people’s work without attribution is called plagiarism and is severely frowned upon.  Plagiarism includes not only direct quotation without indications of origin but also paraphrasing that merely shuffles the ideas around a little or substitutes synonyms for the original words.  In many institutions, plagiarism is grounds for suspension or expulsion.  In all cases, plagiarism defeats the purpose of writing assignments by eliminating the opportunity for critical thinking and creative expression.  Few plagiarists remember what they have copied from others after they hand their material in.

Assuredly, students have traded term papers and other assignments for centuries.  However, the availability of electronic documents and of the World Wide Web has enormously increased the fund of material that can be plagiarized and the ease of copying.  Worse still, some people are profiting from easy accessibility by selling papers specifically for plagiarism and even writing papers to order.  In one study by Peggy Bates and Margaret Fain of the Kimbel Library at Coastal Carolina University, the authors easily located over 100 sites on the Web selling or donating papers to students for plagiarism.

Happily, however, science has come to the aid of beleaguered instructors by providing automated similarity analysis of any paper submitted electronically.  The system uses a bank of more than 100,000 term papers and essays as well as documents located on the WWW; analysis uses pattern recognition to measure similarities among different documents and to estimate the probability of plagiarism.  According to the documentation, “Our system is now being used in the majority of universities in the United States and the U.K., as well as a large number of schools around the world. Many of these institutions, among them UC Berkeley and the fifty-eight member schools of the Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges, a association of the most respected liberal arts schools in the US, have chosen to ensure the academic integrity of all their students by selecting institution-wide subscriptions to our service. Other universities, such as Harvard and Cornell, have elected to make use of our system on a departmental or single-instructor basis.”

Discuss plagiarism clearly at home and at school.

·  Use examples to illustrate the difference between plagiarism and a legitimate use of other people’s work.

·  Encourage children to practice summarizing information in their own words.

·  Practice writing references to quoted material.

·  Have a student submit a sample term paper to the analysis program for an automatic Originality Report.

·  Discuss how anti-plagiarism sites analyze documents to measure similarities and help teachers identify plagiarism.