Last year, Harvard University imposed sanctions on 60 students caught plagiarizing on a take-home exam. From the top of the academic heap on down, rooting out plagiarism is a problem that plagues teachers, schools and universities.

In one study, Yashu Yang, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Teaching Education in the College of Education and Human Sciences at University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL), found that 79.6 percent of her sample of 83 college students engaged in digital plagiarism, copying text from Internet sources and claiming it as their own.

As a result, she and colleagues at the UNL Center for Instructional Innovation have been inspired to create an online writing coaching system that teaches students how to avoid plagiarism by automatically searching students' writing and alerting them to potential plagiarism. The system recommends ways students can monitor their writing, provides an online note-taking tool, and contains a database for teachers on topics related to cognitive and educational psychology.

The program is in the testing phase and may someday prove useful for psychologists and other professionals who write, as well as for student writers, Yang says.

The system can detect plagiarism, but Yang emphasizes that the real goal is to help young writers learn to monitor themselves to prevent plagiarism. "We want to teach [students] what is the right thing to do when you write" by developing these instructional systems, she says. "It's not just in order to catch them cheating. I don't think that's the true goal of education."

— Julie Cohen