Using the Internet, and a little creativity, in the battle against academic fraud.
By Stephen Bourdon
In the good old days, teachers merely had to thumb through their well-worn copies of Coles Notes to locate a duplicated document. Today, because the Internet offers so many resources for cheaters, the task may seem slightly more daunting. One web site alone offers 87 essays on Lord of the Flies.
This year, five of my students plagiarized major papers.
A plagiarized essay on Golding’s Lord of the Flies was relatively easy to detect. When compared to the original outline, some controlling arguments of the final draft bore no resemblance to the outline. The tell-tale sign of the pastiche – sophisticated concepts and beautifully coherent wording embedded into writing that more closely matched the abilities of the student – jumped off the page.
I first went to essaycampus.com. It has been the first choice of 80 per cent of all students who plagiarize essays in my classes. The inherent laziness of some plagiarists doesn’t stop at their choice of web site. Practically all the plagiarists I have uncovered have not only gone to essaycampus.com, they have also taken the first essay that comes up. Such was the case with this plagiarist. It took two minutes and forty-one seconds of search-and-read.
While a number of my colleagues have returned to the practice of giving unit tests, one effective strategy many of us use is the in-class essay. The students do their brainstorming, outlines and rough drafts under close scrutiny in class. The process work is stored in a cabinet. My students can also work on their projects before or after the regular school day. When the students are ready to take their projects home for word processing, I sign their work, particularly essay outlines and rough drafts.
Students must understand that the final work must be essentially the same. Any outlines heavily laced with correction fluid will nullify the project. On the due date, the student submits the file, containing all teacher-authorized process work, hand-edited rough drafts and two copies of the final draft. A quick comparison of the outline, rough drafts and final draft will usually produce the intended results.
The system did deter most students from plagiarizing their papers and it made the questionable essays easier to spot. But, as I soon discovered, this system is not guaranteed.
One of my OAC English students had selected Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and Knowles’ A Separate Peace for his comparative study. The choice of texts was an early clue that something might be amiss, but I chose to give the benefit of the doubt. From the final product, it was clear that its level of sophistication was not commensurate with the individual. So, off I went to our web site of choice, where I discovered the entire paper, with the exception of a few sentences. I re-examined some of the process work and found part of it had been plagiarized as well. That discovery was unnerving.
The copied notes were easy to identify because they were beyond the student’s level of insight. As well, their style of organization, the topics covered, the layout on the page (screen) and even the font style produced a dead giveaway.
This experience shows that a few students plan their misdemeanours well in advance. First, the individual locates an essay on an acceptable subject. Looking for some notes on the topic is the next step. For this purpose, sparknotes.com, offers lots of study notes free of charge. Once a suitable set of notes is acquired, the student sits back and relaxes, waiting patiently for due dates to arrive. When the progress check comes due, the proposal and some rough notes are handed in for evaluation. When the final draft is due, the student presents the pilfered paper.
One could insist that students produce handwritten notes, but cheaters will always cheat, regardless of their use of pens or word processors. Let them use the technology. The honest students will benefit from their hard work and integrity. If we are diligent in using the technology ourselves, those who transgress will suffer the consequences.
T H E M O R A L I S S U E S
The outright deviousness and dishonesty lying beneath such an act is both contemptible and heartbreaking. Since our profession is built on mutual trust, any breach of it means that any faith that existed would, at the very best, be questioned; at the very worst it may be completely abrogated.
The act leaves a scar. How can we treat the offending student ever again with anything but a guarded approach? The subject of consequences is another matter altogether.
While the punishment for academic dishonesty in universities is severe, the same cannot be said for secondary schools. School boards may have zero tolerance policies for plagiarism, but the consequences may have little meaning.
Even though one of my OAC students repeatedly plagiarized this year, other than being given a zero grade for all illegitimate assignments, the student has had to face no other repercussions. I have had to deal with this problem on my own. I suspect this may be the case elsewhere in the profession. In my view, the fault lies with board policies, not with the administrators of my school, who have been supportive. The policies, having no real teeth, have not caught up with the electronic world.
Another issue that no doubt annoys hardworking, conscientious teachers is the time and expense we spend in checking for plagiarism. Sure, we can use the Internet at school, but few of the enticing sites are available to us because the firewall prevents access. We may obtain the special board authorization and the secret password, which allow us for a limited time to gain access to such sites as Chuck’s College Resources, Essay Campus or the many others of their ilk.
Since this code is changed every few weeks to maintain security, it means additional requests as the need arises. Moreover, teaching seven classes this term precludes any Internet searching during school hours. I do my electronic searching at home, using my own Internet facilities on my home computer.
Like most teachers I spend my own time using my paid-for service provider because some individual lacks the integrity to do the required work honestly. Not only are we not compensated for expenses incurred, we have also used valuable time that could have been spent preparing lessons for (or evaluating the work of) honest students. Moreover, if we have been expending our energy chasing after plagiarists, by the time we are ready to focus on other school endeavours, we have been emotionally drained by the experience. We had better have a few strategies to reduce the likelihood that plagiarism will occur. In the process, we will lessen our own stress.
P R E V E N T I N G P L A G I A R I S M
We can use the in-class essay process to level the playing field for all students.
Make sure that the students understand the rationale behind this process. It is important to monitor all stages closely before signing off drafts and outlines in your own unique marker or pen. At this stage, the students are allowed to take their process file home to word process their essay. Word-processed rough drafts must be edited by hand before corrections and revisions are done on the computer.
As well, insist on receiving two copies of their final draft. Since the statute of limitations for plagiarism runs to the end of the term (or semester), the second copy allows more time for checking dubious papers even after grading them. My students know their essay marks are conditional. A file of the essays can be used as models in future years or simply retained in case siblings or friends decide to borrow a previously successful paper.
Maybe we need to fight fire with fire.
The web itself can aid us in detecting plagiarized papers rather quickly, and if we are willing to pay for the service, almost no work on our part is necessary. In unearthing two of my students’ illegitimate essays this year and having no hits at essaycampus.com, I went to the search engine at dogpile.com . This free site worked fairly well. In a reasonably short time, both suspected papers were confirmed illegitimate.
Another site, turnitin.com, offers what appears to be an excellent service. For a fee, teachers may register their classes for the academic year. After essays are submitted on floppy disk (as well as hard copy), the teacher downloads the essays to the turnitin.com where they are scanned and compared to thousands of pages of materials available on the Internet. Then, the site reports any discrepancies back to the client. In addition, the site will maintain a bank of a teacher’s downloaded projects for future scanning and comparison over the years. This service precludes the need to file away reams of essays. This web site has service plans for individuals, departments and school boards. My English department is seriously considering it for next fall. Until then, perhaps a little creativity is in order.
Since we sometimes tend to rely on assignments that have worked well in the past, perhaps we need to re-think this practice. If we repeatedly use the same topics each year, they may also work for those students who later have access to archived copies.
Employing a little creativity in developing our essay topics may help reduce the temptation to steal. Modifying the assignments each year can be effective. It may seem like a lot of work at first as we rack our brains for new topics, but after a few years, such modifications become much easier using files of past assignments.
Even more creative is to develop topics that are unlikely to be duplicated elsewhere. For example, this year my OAC students wrote essays comparing Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Timothy Findley’s The Wars. Happily, these topics yielded no plagiarized papers. Another possibility is to select a poem, song or excerpt from an historical document upon which to base an explication or comparative paper. For example, one might compare the topic of guilt in The Ryme of the Ancient Mariner and The Wars; or a student could explore the consequences of weak decisions in these two pieces. Certainly, the many essays found on the web that are written on the run-of-the-mill topics clearly indicate that a little imagination will go a long way in curtailing plagiarism.
If we have seen web plagiarism, we may begin to view the Internet as the plague of the millennium, a scourge that ought to be eradicated for corrupting the minds of our pupils. More constructively, we can regard the Internet as a powerful force that we can use to improve our professional lives. Our familiarity with its resources can certainly assist us in detecting plagiarism — in fact, it can help us much faster and easier than searching through books at the library. That, together with a little creativity in the kinds of assignments we present and our fastidiousness in administering them to our students, will go a long way to discourage intellectual theft.
Stephen Bourdon teaches English at Meadowvale Secondary School in Mississauga.
Web sites you may wish to check out. After all, your students already have.
S T U D Y G U I D E S
Check out this site if you want to check a student’s outline
sparknotes.com (similar to Coles Notes)
These sites have thousands of essays on many topics
essayfinder.com (commercial site; custom essay writing also available)
E S S A Y S E A R C H E N G I N E S
Use these to look for plagiarized essays
turnitin.com (charges a fee for scanning thousands of Internet documents, looking for duplicates of your students’ essays)
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