Schools face prevalence of online plagiarism: Educators try to thwart growing cheating problem as Web sites make it easy for students to purchase papers

June 6, 2005

Cheaters beware. High schools and universities are turning up the heat on students who pilfer information for research papers or book reports.

The term plagiarism originated from the Latin word plagiarius, which meant kidnapper, and has existed for centuries. But the creation of the Internet has made it much easier to lift published material without crediting the source.

With a few clicks of the mouse, students simply can "cut and paste" the information they need. Or, for a fee, they can purchase entire term papers online from hundreds of Web sites offering an array of topics.

Now, educational administrators are beginning to recognize the prevalence of the problem and are fighting back. Many are bolstering their rules of conduct to provide them additional disciplinary power when handing out a failing grade might not be enough.

"We began to address it about two years ago," said Stephen Heck, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals. "It's a whole new area. The idea of Internet plagiarism had never really surfaced in our schools, and now it has become a serious issue."

Recent studies conducted jointly by Rutgers University and the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University shed light on the growing problem.

A 2003 survey found 38 percent of more than 18,000 college students had copied material from the Internet without citing the source. The amount represented a dramatic increase from the 10 percent who admitted guilt in a similar survey just two years before.

The numbers are even more striking at the high school level, in which roughly 58 percent of nearly 18,000 students said they had partaken in the practice.

Donald McCabe, a Rutgers management professor who led the studies, said the students' lack of remorse surprised him more than the numbers. In the latest survey of college students, 44 percent of those who said they had plagiarized dismissed the practice as "trivial" or "not cheating at all."

"They convince themselves that they're doing nothing wrong," he said. "That's the scary thing, because that's the attitude they're going to take out into the real world."

Checks and balances

To help combat the problem, educators are revamping their rules of conduct or honor codes that govern student activities. At Indiana University in Bloomington, for instance, administrators are revising the student code this year to include more language specifically targeting Internet plagiarism.

Students accused of plagiarizing could receive a failing grade on the assignment, or worse, for the course, said Dick McKaig, IU's dean of students. If a pattern of violations exists, suspension or expulsion could be warranted.

In the 2003-2004 school year, faculty reported 121 cases of plagiarism, down from 150 the previous school year, McKaig said. Considering 38,000 students attend the university, the numbers hardly represent a crisis. But faculty members are not taking any chances.

They voted to renew an agreement with Turnitin.com, a California-based company that compares research papers to works in databases containing material from places students would likely go to cheat. The company flags papers with work taken from other sources. More than 5,000 schools, colleges and other institutions pay 75 cents per student for the analysis, according to the company.

"The decision to continue to participate is sort of reflective that faculty realize this is a problem that has to be addressed in forthright ways," McKaig said.

The University of Notre Dame at South Bend is taking note, too, according to an April story in the student newspaper, The Observer. Committees of students, faculty and administrators last fall crafted a series of amendments to the school's honor code.

One of those approved recently by the Academic Council allows faculty to penalize students they believe have cheated, such as giving them a zero for the assignment. The punishment is a swifter option to a drawn-out departmental committee hearing, although students can still choose to argue their cases.

High schools get tougher

At the high school level, school districts generally revisit their student handbooks at the end of the academic year to consider revisions. Many of those this year are including honor-code provisions in their rules of conduct that give administrators the ability to treat plagiarism as a disciplinary matter, said Jon Bailey, a partner at the locally based law firm of Bose McKinney & Evans LLP.

"In situations where a bad grade wasn't enough," he said, "they wanted the ability to go a little further."

Speaking through an Indianapolis Public Schools spokeswoman, Willie Giles, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at IPS, said he thinks the issue is less of a concern among the K-12 ranks than at the collegiate level. He said IPS schools have no rules directly addressing online plagiarism.

Bailey estimated that roughly 10 to 15 of the school districts he represents are toughening their rules of conduct. He declined to name those districts, citing privacy matters.

After conducting research about online plagiarism, Bailey said he was surprised that, in at least some cases, parents must know their students are turning in other people's works.

That's because numerous Web sites offering term papers for sale require a credit card, something most high-school students don't have.

Papers for sale

For procrastinators, many of the sites known as "digital term paper mills" offer urgent service. At least one charges $26.95 per page instead of its standard $12.95 for delivery within 48 hours.

A plethora of topics are available from other Web sites, including such hot-button issues as abortion, cloning and U.S. foreign policy.

And other sites sell customized papers to thwart plagiarism-detection software. Some actually guarantee teacher approval.

Tim Dodd, executive director at Duke's Center for Academic Integrity, which assisted Rutgers in the studies, credited school districts for recognizing the depth of the problem. But he said they really need to be more proactive, instead of reactive, when attempting to combat cheating.

"It requires a much more comprehensive approach," Dodd said. "Schools are recognizing that they have to re-evaluate their stance on academic integrity and they have to develop the appropriate savvy to make learning valuable to students, and not subject to cheating."
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