The rise of Web sites peddling papers to students has meant the rise of cut-and-paste plagiarism. But faculty aren't just idly watching this happen: They are fighting back with new electronic tools.
A growing number are using Internet sites such as Turnitin.com--paid services that check students' papers for similar passages in a bank of stored papers. Meanwhile, other faculty are developing their own software, custom-made for their classes. A well-known example of this is a program developed by University of Virginia physics professor Louis Bloomfield, which turned up 100 papers he suspected were plagiarized.
And psychology professors are getting in on the act as well. For example, with the help of a student, Benjamin Johnson, St. John's University's Miguel Roig, PhD, has developed a scanning tool that detects copied language--strings of six words or more--in any number of papers he feeds into it.
The software allows faculty to scan students' papers against specific documents they suspect have been copied, including the papers of other students. However, "one thing it doesn't conquer is when a student pays another student to write the paper for them," says Roig, who also conducts research on plagiarism. "There are always ways of circumventing policy."
To be sure, even electronic tools are no panacea for the problem of plagiarism. Just as with old-fashioned detection--comparing suspiciously similar passages against an original--plagiarism can be hard to prove. For instance, a student may have modified an original passage just enough that no six-word string is repeated, thus eluding the electronic detector.
What's more, even if the program does detect repeated words, students can claim that this happened purely by accident, notes Stephen Davis, PhD, academic dishonesty researcher and retired professor emeritus at Emporia State University. Electronic programs can only give a "probability" that a student plagiarized, allowing for an out.
"If the student has a good lawyer, the student has just won because of probability," says Davis. "Even if a program says the probability of plagiarism is one in a thousand, a jury will think that's reasonable doubt."
Still, say Davis and other professors, the new tools are at least another weapon in the arsenal--a way for faculty to win back control using the very medium that took it from them in the first place.