Digital Plagiarism

Thinking about turning in a paper you bought off the internet? Think again.

It's three a.m. and you're sitting in front of your computer bleary-eyed. Your deadline is approaching. As a matter of fact you have several deadlines approaching. The idea of logging on to the Web and downloading a finished term paper from one of the many sites posting them seems tempting. Many of the papers available on these sites are free - just point and click and you can get a paper on topics that range from current politics to Shakespeare to nuclear physics. There are also custom-written and foreign language papers available. Unfortunately, you might not really learn French, but Web site forgeries can make it appear that you have. But before you start clicking, beware. Not only are professors and teaching assistants more aware than ever of resources for plagiarizing, but new databases are appearing online to help schools bust cheaters. Digital "term-paper mills" have proliferated exponentially in the last few years and some of these sites claim to have had over a million visitors. Although plagiarism has always been an issue in the academic community, the Internet has augmented the problem. Cheating is now convenient, speedy, and just a click away. A recent study by USA Today found that fewer than five percent of the 2,100 college students surveyed admitted to using a term-paper mill paper, and just ten percent of them had used the Internet as a source to plagiarize. The numbers may not seem very high, but to school administrators and professors who currently have no accurate way to measure how much "digital plagiarism" takes place, the proliferation of paper mills has posed a new challenge to academic integrity. However, as fast as these paper mills are growing, technological innovations to detect cheaters are becoming more popular with school administrators and professors. Services such as Integriguard, The Essay Verification Engine, and M.O.S.S., or Measurement of Software Similarity, (geared toward catching plagiarists in computer science classes) have been around for several years. A newer service called was tested at the University of California, Berkeley last winter. "We have been very pleased with the interactions we've had. It's a great tool which in all instances saves faculty members hours and hours of research," says Doug Zuidema, the assistant director for Judicial Affairs in the U.C. Berkeley student conduct office. His office is currently in negotiations to set a contract with, though the terms are undisclosed. According to Kathleen McMahon, the assistant dean of students at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is also exploring a relationship with the service. reports current interest from as many as three hundred other schools, including some overseas. These anti-cheating programs have large databases of hundreds of thousands of papers and can scan millions of Web pages in minutes using some of the largest search engines on the Net. Once a paper is submitted for review, it becomes part of the databank, making it difficult for students to share each other's papers for different classes, as well as at different universities. The problem goes beyond simply downloading an entire paper from online sources. "The Internet has changed the shape and pattern of the plagiarism cases that we see," says Assistant Dean Jill Cutler of Yale University, executive secretary of the committee. "The attitude about downloading things off the Internet and incorporating them into a paper is different from the attitude about copying things out of a leads people to do things they may not fully intend to do." Bruce Beiderwell, the assistant director of the writing program at UCLA, maintains that the seemingly gray areas of plagiarism must be clarified. "Some students have an unsophisticated sense of what writing is...using a pastiche of material lifted from the Internet linked together with student text and heavy editing, it can become easy to convince themselves that it's their original work." Beiderwell takes his students to the library where librarians guide them through a Web site and discuss the research value of what is on the site and how to evaluate it. In addition, he notes, "students should be critical of many sources on the Internet because there is no way to evaluate their credibility and they're ephemeral. When someone goes back to check a source, it could be gone."

Only time will tell what effect the Internet's massive growth will bring to the educational process. For now, students like Melissa Barshop, a junior English major at U.C. Berkeley, seem to be keeping things in perspective. "Papers from the Internet don't guarantee good grades and there's always urban legends about ordered-up papers that failed."