The Magazine for Leaders in Education: Confronting Online Plagiarism

Confronting Online Plagiarism – Brief Article

Odvard Egil Dyrli

The use of ghostwriters is relatively common among school executives. Who would have thought it could be a risky business? What would happen if a college president unknowingly used a speech “written” by a ghostwriter that had really been “lifted” from an essay written several years earlier by another president and posted online? This actually happened to the president of a small college recently, illustrating the danger plagiarism presents for administrators as well as students. And the power of Web technology has only increased plagiarism incidents.

The Web offers powerful research tools that could scarcely be imagined a few years ago and immediate access to global information on any topic. The New Jersey-based NEC Research Institute estimates that every second 25 new pages are added to more than 1.4 billion pages already on the Net. Electronic content can effortlessly be copied, pasted, and manipulated for use in reports and assignments. So even though there is a not-so-fine line between quoting online sources and copying, it has never been easier to fraudulently submit such content as one’s own original work. Whether we are grading papers or reviewing the publications of candidates for tenure–and I have sadly had to confront plagiarism in both arenas–we need to be informed about the potential for Web abuse.

The Growth of Online Paper Mills

Far beyond cut-and-paste electronic plagiarism, are the rapidly growing numbers of paper mill Web sites that inventory, sell–and in some cases give away–thousands of academic research papers on topics in every content area. The ease of electronic delivery and continuing demand for such services has made this a thriving business, and we identified more than 50 such sites now in operation. These range from modest volunteer sites that simply collect student papers in free databases, to sophisticated fee-based commercial operations with toll-free numbers, credit card options, and even same-day service via e-mail, fax, or courier.

Although papers contributed by other students typically vary greatly in quality, some sites claim that the materials in their online catalogs were prepared by professional writers and moonlighting professors in various fields. In addition, many sites also offer custom writing options, where research can be commissioned on any topic. And instant term papers are not cheap. The current costs for pre-written papers generally range from $5 to $9 per page, with charges for custom writing at about $22 to $35 per page.

Kenny Sahr, founder of the free site School Sucks (http://www .schoolsucks.com), said “10,000 people visit School Sucks every day, and each views three to five papers.” With between 900,000 and 1.5 million documents being viewed each month on just one site and untold numbers of cut-and-paste hits, it’s clear that the problem of online plagiarism is not going away.

Confronting the Problem

A number of states including Massachusetts and Texas have made it illegal to sell research material if there is the expectation that it will be submitted for academic credit, so many paper mill sites now include prominent disclaimers indicating that their contents are solely for “informational,” “comparison” or “research” purposes.

In 1997, Boston University tried to bring a federal lawsuit against eight term-paper companies in seven states. To gather evidence for its case, the university hired a law clerk and paralegal to pose as students who wanted to buy papers, but the suit was dismissed for procedural reasons in 1998. BU didn’t pursue the litigation further.

On the other hand, many feel that First Amendment rights extend to selling academic papers over the Internet, and feel that reviewing such materials is no different than studying old test papers stored in fraternity and sorority files. And there is no movement to censor the use of the familiar “Cliff’s Notes.” But since education is always a first line of defense, it is important to establish clear policies regarding plagiarism and address online issues for students and staff before the fact. See, for example, the policy developed by the English Department at my university (http://www.lib.uconn.edu/ English/Undergraduate/plagpol.html).

Web Solutions

If you know the work of the writer or if the writing and research are poor it may be easier to spot plagiarism, but that’s not always the case. Large lecture courses may have hundreds of students, and plagiarized work may even be of exceptional quality. But now online technology is available to detect plagiarism in any submitted essay, term paper or poem.

Paperbin.com (http://www. paperbin.com) is a faculty subscription service that authenticates the originality of student writing submitted to the site, and e-mails a detailed writing analysis to the subscriber. If Web resources were copied into a document–even single paragraphs–such software will find those references. David Presti, a professor of neurobiology at the University of California at Berkeley used the Plagiarism.org service (http:// plagiarism.org) last spring, and found that 45 of 320 students had plagiarized at least part of their essays from the Internet.

I recently tested several of the services myself, using an early draft of an article I published that was on the Web, and got effective and amazing results. For example, Eve2 (http:// www.canexus.com/eve), the “essay verification engine,” quickly found the exact location of the online version of my article, reported that about 46 percent of the draft appeared to have been taken from that site, and sent back the early version of the text I submitted with every “copied” line and phrase underlined.

Although a few of the sites are free, the more powerful services are subscription-based with fees that start at about $20 per year for a class of 30. Paperbin.com for example, charges $4.95 per month per instructor for multiple classes. However, since even the fee-based sites offer sample searches and free trials, I recommend that faculty members take advantage of those opportunities to see what the programs can do.

The use of software to detect online plagiarism has been criticized for potentially undermining honor codes of trust between students and faculty members. Can universities establish a “trust relationship” with students if they are using software to make sure students aren’t cheating?

Online Paper Mills

The following is a cross-section of free and fee-based Web sites where papers on any topic can be downloaded and ordered, including essays, research reports, term papers, entrance applications, and even theses and dissertations.

* A1 Termpaper (http://www.a1-termpaper.com), 20,000 pre-written term papers at varying prices, and custom research services

* Cyber Essays (http://www.cyberessays.com), 16,000 free term papers, essays, and reports on all subjects

* The Doctor (http://www.serve.com/doctor), fee-based essays, term papers and research reports written by college professors employed by universities across the country

* LazyStudents.com (http://www.lazystudents.com/papers), free access to thousands of term papers, research papers, essays and book reports for a onetime “nominal fee”

* Paper Store Enterprises (http://paperstore.net and http://vvvvvv.paperwriters .com), 12,000 fee-based papers with sample pages and custom writing services, offered through multiple sites: 12,000 papers.com (http://www. 12000papers.com), Buy Papers (http://www.buypapers.com), Papers 123.com (http://www.papers123.com), Papers 24-7 (http://www.papers24-7.com), Thousands of Papers (http://www.termpapers-on-file.com)

* Paper Sure (http://www.papershack.com), a fee-based custom writing service

* Research Assistance (http://www.research-assistance.com), custom services and 25,000 fee-based papers, but no opportunity to preview selections

* School Sucks (http://www.schoolsucks.com), thousands of free papers searchable by topic, with links to fee-based writing services

Matrix On the Web

Read about services that detect online plagiarism on our Web site, Matrix Unbound at http://www. matrix-magazine.com

Odvard Egil Dyrli, emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut, coordinated a university-sponsored teacher professional development center cited in Newsweek, directed a statewide federally funded science curriculum implementation project, and presents technology conference keynotes and staff development programs at colleges and universities throughout the United States and Europe.

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