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Plagiarism Detection in the Era of the Cheating Economy

Plagiarism Detection in the Era of the Cheating Economy

by Sharon Jumper, JD
May 07, 2018


Three years ago, I wrote an article titled, “Detection of plagiarism while assessing online student work,” in which tips and tools for detecting plagiarism were identified and discussed. Since that time, students have continued to attempt to circumvent innovations in plagiarism detection and the industry known as “The Cheating Economy” has grown exponentially. This article, Plagiarism Detection in the Era of the Cheating Economy, will outline some of the more recent techniques used by students to avoid detection of plagiarism.

Many institutions rely on software like Turnitin or Safe Assign to detect plagiarism. There are several strategies that students use to lower their originality score reports from these tools. One is to use synonyms to change several words in each sentence. A related strategy is to simply rearrange the order of words in a sentence. These strategies are particularly effective when the detection program is set to only consider longer strings of identical words.

Plagiarism Detection in the Era of the Cheating Economy: Content Rewrite Tools

There are programs that will rewrite content automatically, such as Synonymizer, Spinner Chief, Plagiarisma, Paraphrasing Tool, SEO Article Rewriter Tool, Spinbot, and dozens of other cloud-based programs – some free, some paid. The results from these attempts have varying quality. Often, you may question whether the student has good command of the English language because terms of art and idiomatic phrases do not lend themselves to synonym substitution – it may appear that English isn’t the student’s native language, and for that reason, many faculty will give a bit of latitude. Some faculty and institutions take the position that if they can’t prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that plagiarism occurred via report from a plagiarism detection tool, the student cannot earn a zero when they submit “something,” no matter how poorly written. Students who plagiarize take advantage of these two sentiments. This type of plagiarism is detected by a report that shows streams of copied phrases broken up with text that seems out of context. Click on the text that is receiving match hits and check the original source – you will likely then be able to decipher to pattern of substitution or rearrangement.

Plagiarism Detection in the Era of the Cheating Economy: Letter Substitution

Another common strategy used by students to avoid detection of plagiarism is letter substitution. The student simply uses the “find and replace” function to substitute a character that looks nearly identical. A related technique is to “find and replace” all spaces in the document with a symbol, then using the “find and replace” function to turn that symbol white, thus rendering it invisible…and making your document one large stream of text with no words or sentences. If a student has used either of these tricks, you will get zero hits whatsoever on Turnitin. To verify use of either tactic, you need to download the MS Word file. To check for substitute letters, increase the view size of the text, and differences will be more apparent. To check for invisible characters, go to Edit -> Select All and then select a color other than white – any invisible characters will appear.

Plagiarism Detection in the Era of the Cheating Economy: Image Based PDF or Embedded Images

Another trick that students attempt is submitting either an image-based PDF or images embedded in a MS Word document that appear to be text. Plagiarism detection software cannot “read” images. You will get no hits on the originality report if the paper is fully an image-based PDF or embedded image in a MS Word document. If there is text between images, some of that may register as a hit in the originality report. Download the document and run the cursor through it. Images that are embedded will show a box where the image was inserted.

Professors Must Stay On Their Game to Catch Cheating Students

As I noted in the 2015 article, there are a number of sharing sites, both paid and unpaid, that students use to cheat and plagiarize. Often, the documents on those sites are either image-based, rather than textual, or located behind a paid firewall, so plagiarism detection programs cannot get a match. Examples of sharing sites include Pinterest, YouTube, StudyBlue, Chegg, LearningAce, Reddit, HomeworkSavior, and CourseHero.

At the most egregious end of the plagiarism spectrum are “custom paper” sites where a student can pay for someone to write a paper for them. Some sites have expanded offerings, including preparation of oral presentations, participation in online discussions, taking tests, or even completing an entire course or writing a dissertation. Examples of such sites include: Jittery Monks, Unemployed Professors, PapersOwl, AdvancedWriters, and hundreds of other sites.

Detection of plagiarized work from paper mills requires knowing your students and their writing style, as well as knowing the nuances of your course materials. In many instances, paper mill authors are in other countries, so English, rather than American spelling of words may be prolific in the document. Historical, political, social, legal, or contextual analyses may diverge from the actual assignment. I’ve seen this quite a bit in papers for business law courses in which non-existent agencies are cited, because either the actual author or copied source was Canadian, Australian, or British, rather than American.

If the student writes one way on the discussion board and on a completely different level, sounding like it may be a different person – it, in fact, may be a different person. I recommend contacting your supervisor in these instances. At schools where academic integrity is taken seriously, this often results in the scheduling an informal chat via video conference. One great program for this is Zoom, which is free, and allows users to share a screen and file while simultaneously recording the video conference. In my experience, students typically confess quickly in these instances. If the institution is one where the organizational culture is such that academic integrity is not on par with retention and “student persistence,” the students will know this and will exploit it. In those instances, there is little choice but to do the job you contracted to do, following school policy, and finish up the term…and then resign and trade up to institutions that respect the hard work of honest students and do not allow cheaters and plagiarists to devalue their degree.


Advanced Writers. (n.d.) Fast writing service from real experts. Retrieved on May 6, 2018, from https://www.advancedwriters.com

Jittery Monks. (n.d.) Order in seconds: Summon the monks. Retrieved on May 6, 2018, from https://jitterymonks.com/order/

Jumper, S. (2015, April 3). Detection of plagiarism while assessing student work. Retrieved from https://www.thebabbgroup.com/blog/guest-articles/detection-of-plagiarism-while-assessing-online-student-work.html

Paraphrasing Tool. (n.d.) Paraphrasing tool. Retrieved on May 6, 2018, from http://www.paraphrasing-tool.org

PapersOwl. (n.d.) Custom dissertation writing service. Retrieved on May 6, 2018, from https://papersowl.com/dissertation-writing-services

Plagiarisma. (n.d.) Plagiarisma: Free article spinner, paraphrasing tool, reword and rephrase online. Retrieved on May 6, 2018, from http://plagiarisma.net/spinner.php

SEO Tools Center. (n.d.) SEO article rewriter. Retrieved on May 6, 2018, from https://seotoolscentre.com/article-rewriter-tool

Spinbot. (n.d.). Spinbot: Article spinning, text rewriting, content creation tool. Retrieved on May 6, 2018, from https://spinbot.com

Spinner Chief. (n.d.) Spinner Chief: The real best article spinner. Retrieved on May 6, 2018, from http://www.spinnerchief.com

Synonymizer. (n.d.) Synonymizer: Text improvement, plagiarism avoidance, content generation. Retrieved on May 6, 2018, from http://synonymizer.com.ar

Unemployed Professors. (n.d.) Unemployed professors: How it works. Retrieved on May 6, 2018, from https://unemployedprofessors.com/Howitworks.aspx

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About the Author

Sharon Jumper, JD, BA earned a B.A. in Government from Wofford College, in 1989, a J.D. (Law) from Wake Forest University in 1992, a Master's in Public Administration (2015) and Post-Graduate Certificate in Applied Project Management (2016) from Walden University.

Sharon has over 20 years of progressive leadership experience higher education, with expertise in development, implementation, evaluation, and continuous improvement of challenging and inspiring curricula.

She also spent three years teaching undergraduate students while abroad in the United Arab Emirates and China. Her current faculty affiliations are UMUC, UCLA-Extension, Broward College, Excelsior College, and Baker College. Most recently, Sharon supervised the development and launch of courses in eight new online graduate programs at the University of Miami.

Sharon Jumper