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Plagiarism, Online Teaching and Today’s Student - Part 2

Plagiarism, Online Teaching and Today’s Student - Part 2

by Freda Bradley
June 23, 2015

By: Freda Bradley, MA

Welcome back to this short discussion of plagiarism and today’s student. In Part I , I shared many of the old tricks still floating around the internet that students may be attempting to use to cheat the plagiarism software. I shared how that software works and even why some feel it does not work well at all. I also shared some of the more devious issues that are now cropping up making our jobs much more difficult.

However, I didn’t yet discuss what can be done to minimize the issues of plagiarism or what we can do to help identify it, especially if the software doesn’t catch it.

Online Tutor and Homework Helpers: Help or Hindrance?

When students get stuck, they’re often told that a good method to improve is to get a tutor. Just like many colleges now offer distance learning, online tutoring sites are becoming common. However, the difference is that many of the students who are trying to “game the system” don’t want HELP, they want the answer handed to them.

Many online tutors are well qualified to give additional instruction. Many are the same individuals that teach in a variety of school settings all across America. However, many report that students will reply, “that doesn’t help me” when further instruction is given as opposed to giving the actual answer. This, too, is becoming all too common particularly for those students who just want to “game the system.” These students also know that if they evaluate the tutor as “unhelpful” in a review back to the company, that tutor may lose their position. Equally problematic is the fact that some tutors are quite willing to provide the answer for a good review. Unfortunately for the instructor, it is less likely that plagiarism software will catch this type of cheating particularly if this “tutoring” is done in a chat environment or in a “private” setting rather than a public message board.

Another new wrinkle is the “homework helper” sites. Many of these sites encourage students to upload their tests, or copy the test banks to their “help” sites. These sites don’t offer “help” in the traditional sense, however. Looking closer into these sites, I found that many sites simply give you the answers depending on how much you upload.

This is becoming highly specified also. One site I just came across recently had math homework answers based specifically on individual textbooks (complete with ISBN number comparison). The answers were given with the specific page numbers and problem numbers on the page of that unique book. While the site gave the ANSWER, it asked you to “check your textbook for the prompt.” That seems very backward to me, but it’s becoming more real for today’s student.

Finally, there is the problem of someone other than the student taking the tests, writing the discussion posting, or even logging into the course and doing all the work for a fee. While these cheats DO violate any type of academic honor code, it is highly difficult (if not impossible) to catch these types of perpetrators “red handed” as it were. Unless the work is somehow videotaped or proctored, this can and will continue to be an issue, particularly for the online/blended courses or those with an online test component. If students feel little remorse for sharing their log in information to gain a passing grade, there is little the instructor can do as far as I can see at this juncture.

Again, using the video game reference from last week, as our students are trying to “game the system”, the internet is giving our students the “cheat codes” for the game. It is imperative for instructors to realize this is happening, and try to close the gaps wherever possible.

What’s an Instructor to Do?

Mitigation is a good plan. Just like someone working in the Emergency Management industry wants to mitigate (or minimize and reduce) the damage, so should we. My mantra is “never assume.” Never assume that a student understands or has been taught in English class or in high school about plagiarism. Never assume the student understands the ramifications of academic dishonesty. I always use week one to discuss my expectations on plagiarism as well as the institution’s policy on academic dishonesty. Do I wish I could avoid this? Of course, but I’ve learned it’s not worth the assumption. Mitigation should also begin with instructors understanding the limitations of the plagiarism software and the paper mills. Any topic that is common or popular will also be common and popular online and therefore lucrative for the paper mills to produce. Also, as more and more students are being assigned identical prompts from high school through college, it will become more and more commonly represented in these databases; so a bit of creative thinking can help.

By putting the assignment into an entirely different context and by using highly specific supplemental materials, it makes it more difficult for the student to find “copy/paste ready” answers online because the assignment is “unique.” Could that student turn the assignment over to a paper mill? Yes. However, they would also have to require the paper mill to watch the same videos, look at our course lectures, and textbook in addition to any supplemental materials to ensure accuracy. That is a lot of work for a paper mill that wants to make as much money as possible and close up shop. How do you know when your prompt or test question is too common? Most experts suggest going back to Google. If you find your prompt online with Google, you definitely need to change your prompt. It will be easier for a student to “game the system” if the answer is easy to locate, but don’t stop with just a Google search because the students don’t. What else is out there? To paraphrase Shakespeare, “More than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”


Google indexes the results based on your previous searches. It even indexes results based on who paid to show up on top. By contrast, metasearch engines use multiple search engines all at once with different indexing results. They do not store data from your previous searches and send you similar items based on your preferences, so you get new items all the time. They do not store your IP address so they often return new sites as often as they are created which can be invaluable in finding those pesky “fly by night’ paper mills or “study sites.” I generally run my student’s sentences through these metadata engines instead of Google just because they use multiple searches at once.

I recommend Duck Duck Go, Ixquick, or Dogpile. These three metasearch engines are as easy to use as Google, but be aware that some university firewalls block them. That alone will not stop a determined student, however. The “gaming student” will often go to great lengths to “game the system” because if they are successful, they “win” and to them….winning is everything. They will even go deeper into the internet. So, what if your student isn’t using the traditional surface web? What if they’re going deep? What does that even mean?

The Deep Web

There are many layers to the internet. Google, Yahoo, Bing, and others index less than 5% of the World Wide Web. Duck Duck Go and the other metasearch engines get more results, but if you want truly unfiltered (but sometimes questionable or illegal) content, the deep web is where you’ll find it, and many students go there without qualms.

The deep web is the place where surly characters hide, like gunrunners and child pornographers, so you never know what you may encounter. However, if you are seeking cheats, this would be a good place to locate them and “gaming” students probably will go deep to find what they need.

There are a variety of ways to enter and use the deep web. The two easiest ways are with programs like TOR and I2P. These sites are used by law enforcement to take down the seedier underbellies of our civilizations. However, to be fair, they’re also terribly useful to researchers.

I use TOR in my historical research. It was originally developed for the Navy to retain anonymity, and was originally called “The Onion Router” so some articles mention it as “.onion” in the text. It will reassign you a random IP address and will not store any searches you do. College firewalls likely block it, but it’s unlikely public internet servers do. In fact, I’ve read that this is the best way to use the internet at coffee shops and hotels because you will become relatively untraceable.

The TOR download is free and configuring it is usually automatic unless you are in China, for example, where the internet is rigidly monitored. Generally speaking, if you can use Firefox, you can use TOR assuming you can interpret the results without getting yourself into an illegal site. If you run into a site with any variation of Silk Road or Agora Marketplace, however, steer clear. These are generally known as black-market sites and are not a “shopping network” as the names appear.

To compare for this study, I searched Brown v. Board of Education on TOR and compared it with Google. In a side-by-side comparison, I got most of the same top sites; however, TOR did return nearly double the sites offering to do my homework for me after that. I also compared one of my own works side by side on both and found three more sites for my work on TOR than I did with Google. So, if you’re trying to find plagiarized student work, TOR may become your new favorite search engine. There’s about 95% of the web that you haven’t seen, but remember to be careful while you’re there.

Lessons Learned

Many of us already know that these types of cheats have been around as long as higher education, but we need to familiarize ourselves with the 21st century technology that has taken the place of the old filing cabinets on Greek row that contained old tests and papers. Therefore, as with any dilemma or mitigation study, there are lessons learned. We have seen that whatever technology one person can dream up, another can hack just as easily. We know that students will try to cheat the system, and many find that “gaming the system’ is more fun and challenging than doing their own work. We’ve found that it’s a lucrative business that even targets parents these days. Finally, we’ve learned that the layers of the web may not be the “one size fits all” place we thought it was. But what other useful information did we learn?

The biggest lesson, unfortunately, seems to be this: Students have no qualms about cheating. Let’s face facts here. Despite the fact that this has gone on for eons, the culture of today is that cheating is ok. Students have even created the euphemism of “gaming the system” so that it seems more acceptable. So, we need to understand this up front. Where we are able, we need to alter assignments away from those that are photographed by students and put onto Pinterest or other social media, and we need to crawl those spaces looking for our assignments so we can alter them accordingly. We need to steer clear of those “overdone” assignments and get creative on our own end. Finally, we need to help textbook publishers, like Pearson, who troll the web looking for plagiarized content and uploads of their test banks. When we find them, call the publisher and give them the site.

Unfortunately, cheating and plagiarizing of papers is a cultural norm today and some students are going to great lengths and expense to do so. Until we can change the culture to reflect a bar of honesty that students cannot limbo under we are stuck with it. Vigilance and mitigation are key to quelling the instances of plagiarism to the extent we are able.

However, let’s not forget that many of our students are out there trying to do the right thing. We must recognize the difference between a teachable moment and “gaming the system” so we don’t toss the good students to the curb for an honest mistake because, as we’ve seen, even professionals make a mistake now and again.

So, let’s keep praising and lifting up those students that are doing it right. They are the true leaders of tomorrow and we need to ensure they are properly and well prepared for it.