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Virtual Fake Outs
Where have you seen that paper before? Uh, probably online.


Reports of cheating at Virginia Tech increased from 80 incidents in 1995-96 to 280 last year, according to a Sept. 1998 New York Times article. At Boston University plagiarism is such a problem that in 1997 the school resorted to filing a Federal lawsuit against on-line term paper mills.

What's the cause of this rise in cheating? The World Wide Web.

Plagiarism used to require a significant amount of effort. Students would have to do substantial research at a library, or re-use a friend's work. But now just performing a keyword search on your desired topic can get you all you need for an A+ paper. A person can select the text they want, cut and paste it and submit it as their own work. Cut and paste plagiarism is an incentive for some students to make use of those campus T1 lines; students can connect to the Internet and get their assignments done with substantially little more effort than highlighting text.

Not all plagiarists are aware of what they're doing, especially since the Web makes it easier than ever. Some students are misinformed about what plagiarism actually is. Some of us think plagiarizing is copying someone's work in a word-for-word manner. According to the MLA handbook, plagiarism is defined as passing off another person's work as your own. This includes using a person's ideas, concepts and words. Students also often make the mistake of paraphrasing without citing the origin of the idea, wrongly assuming thatparaphrasing and plagiarizing are exclusive of each other.

Is the Web All That?

Should research material be available on the Web?

And the Web offers plagiaristic opportunities that tempt the procrastinating or writer's block-afflicted student. Not only can students steal information from sites with information related to their paper topic, but they can also make use of sites geared toward helping students plagiarize. Students can turn to term paper mills, which give students access to papers on a wide range of subjects to plagiarize. In many states, paper mills, which charge students for papers, are illegal. But there are Web sites that sell the information by merely attaching a site disclaimer describing the information as intended only for research purposes, which is legal, no matter how unethical it might be. And sites that give papers away are also perfectly legal. Students can just download the information, add a few transition sentences and be done with a major paper easily.

But these students are gambling with the accuracy of the paper they turn in. The free mills usually supply students with the work of other plagiarizers. Upon a visit to one of these sites, they will usually ask a student to submit a paper of their own in return for the one they're searching for. This way they can broaden their resources.

Jamie McKenzie Ed.D, editor of education technology journal "From Now On," said the "new plagiarism" is the hardest kind of cheating to detect. Many teachers have grown increasingly frustrated by the fact that cheating is so rampant. In the May 1998 issue of "From Now On," McKenzie proposes a number of plagiarism screening techniques. With a list of "antidotes," McKenzie says, "[It is possible to] cut off the virulent new strain of plagiarism before it becomes an academic plague." Instructors can teach their students what plagiarism is and studying methods so they don't have to resort to cheating.

There is also a process being utilized at the University of California at Berkeley for computer program plagiarism. Alex Aiken, a computer science professor at the university, created a program called Measure of Software Similarity (MOSS). Aiken built this software so that he could detect plagiarism in his students' work. The program, which is currently available via the Internet to instructors, detects the plagiarism through a cheating detection algorithm. The algorithm compares the programs and lists programs that have similar code.

The penalties for being caught plagiarizing vary by school, but are usually severe. Punishments range from a censure to expulsion from the institution.

Some students refuse to yield to the lure of Web-style plagiarism, despite its ease. "I wouldn't really plagiarize because I think it's wrong and because of the serious repercussions of doing something like that," said Abraham Schwartz, a freshman at Emory University.

Hervey Pean is a member of the Emory University class of 2002.

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