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Plagiarism, Online Teaching and Today’s Student - Part 1

Plagiarism, Online Teaching and Today’s Student - Part 1

by Freda Bradley
June 16, 2015

By: Freda Bradley, MA

This two part series delves into the issues surrounding plagiarism in today’s learning environment.  It breaks down several of the methods today’s student will attempt to use in order to cheat, and explores the differences between the “accidental plagiarist” and those who “game the system.”  It also offers help to mitigate some of the issues that plague today’s instructor in an environment where using the Internet to cheat seems to be becoming the new normal.

How many of us have had that eleventh hour email from a student saying that Blackboard won’t allow their upload? Have you heard the excuse that the Learning Management System (LMS) freezes every time they try to upload their document through integrated plagiarism detection software like SafeAssign or TurnItIn? Have you had students who insist that they cannot upload their paper due to a system error and instead want to send you an email copy? While every one of those excuses could be honest reasons for students, they can also signal to the instructor that the student is trying to plagiarize their work.

The Pew Research Center reported here: “Some 55% of college presidents say plagiarism has increased in college students’ papers over the past 10 years.” Out of that 55%, most blamed increased access to the Internet. However, this study did not address specifics on how or even WHY students felt the need to cheat. It seems that we need to address and mitigate this on the front lines of academia or this trend will continue. What do we need to know in order to accomplish this?

Older Tricks of the Plagiarist

Just a few short years ago, changing the font family of the Latin letter “e” to the Cyrillic letter “e” would make any paper pass submission to the major plagiarism software platforms. Later on, students figured out that they could put the entire paper into quotes and white out the quotation marks so the instructor would not see them. At that time with the quotation marks, the entire paper could be taken directly from Dr. Seuss or a doctoral dissertation and the software would also be fooled. Other students figured out how to delve deeper into using Word by adding macros to their papers to alter the outcome of odd character placement such as “~a” into the visually proper letter “a” and it, again, fooled the software. Still other students learned to save a paper as an image file then re-save it to .pdf. Since the software sites couldn’t read image files due to OCR (Optical Character Recognition) issues, the paper couldn’t be “read” by the software and thus returned no plagiarism.

Many of these tricks no longer work as well as they used to but instructors still need to be aware that they exist. According to the major plagiarism software sites they don’t work at all because of revisions in their systems. According to TurnItIn, they strip all macros out of any document uploaded now, and their algorithm actively seeks out odd characters (regardless of color) and seeks foreign or strange characters. It even tracks synonym usage, which used to fool the system as well. In a short experiment I ran, I changed characters from Latin to Cyrillic, I used macros and synonyms, and I tried saving as an image file then re-saving to .pdf. I even ran it through the free sites like Duplichecker.

In most cases, it wouldn’t upload the document at all. It essentially said that the document “couldn’t be read” or it froze in the middle of the upload. All the things we hear in the eleventh hour emails were happening right before my eyes. That doesn’t necessarily mean every student with a computer malfunction is trying to cheat. However, this will certainly be on my radar from now on, especially since these cheats are readily available online from a myriad of sources.

The “Accidental” Plagiarist

No honest writer intends to plagiarize, and it can happen despite the best of intentions. Famous individuals like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have been accused of plagiarism in the past. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin found herself embroiled in controversy when it was found she had plagiarized (inadvertently she said) multiple passages in her book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. This has since been corrected.

Sadly, many of our students are not “accidental plagiarists” and will not admit fault when caught. A personal example of mine was when a student wrote this into her paper, “It was outside the purview of the statistical study…….” Sounds really academic, doesn’t it? Well, this particular student repeatedly confused “where” with “were” and misused “their, there, and they’re.” It was highly unlikely that this student could use purview correctly. So, I Googled the phrase and came up with her source.

I found that she’d copied/pasted some of her data from a masters thesis that had been published on Reddit. In this particular case, the plagiarism software missed it, and the student believed she was “innocent” because “even the software didn’t think it was plagiarism.” Does this, then, send a mixed message to students? I think sometimes it does particularly with our students whose high school backgrounds may have been….well….less than stellar.

How Plagiarism Software Works and Why Some Say It Doesn’t

TurnItIn and other plagiarism sites use “bots” or “robots” which are like small spiders of code that crawl the web looking for and reporting on similar content or similar wording. In addition to these plagiarism seeking bots, nearly all the plagiarism software relies heavily on maintaining a database of previously submitted work with which to compare new submissions.

Some of the software companies have been sued for this by groups of students claiming their database is illegal because they are holding and using student work to make a profit outside the limits of copyright law. The students have consistently lost those cases under the guise of educational fair use policy.

However, many professional academic writers are refusing to run their papers through such databases for the same reason—copyright violation. I can’t say I entirely disagree with their reasoning, but why does it matter in this context?

The plagiarism software cannot read what it cannot SEE. Not only are some academics not uploading their papers into these databases, but also there is a way for them to enter source code to prevent the robots from reading/tracking their work. You can read more about that here and here.

Additional Issues with Plagiarism Software

An additional plagiarism issue specific to the software comes with “standardization” of assignments across the nation. When you get 7500 students across America all writing a paper on the same prompt from the textbook and uploading them into the system or onto “homework help sites”, similarities in the database WILL and DO occur.

An example from one of my own courses (that I have ceased using due to this issue) was to write about the effects of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). All it takes is a quick Google search to find far more than you need on this topic for a quick undergraduate paper, right? But wait a minute…….how many students, then, have already submitted papers through TurnItIn or SafeAssign or even to the homework helper sites on this topic? Thousands? Millions? How many will be flagged as plagiarized from a homework help site because, frankly, how much can an undergraduate in a first semester survey course SAY about this topic that is original? When do we take the student’s word that they did NOT copy from a homework help site, especially when the prompt is ubiquitous across the nation?

In fact, many students report that they feel guilty of cheating even when they are not because of this very situation. They begin to experience debilitating fear that their work will be considered plagiarized if they don’t cite enough or cite too often. Some have even uploaded their percentages online and swear that all the work is their own. Are they lying? Not necessarily. They could be “accidental plagiarists.” Remember, even the professionals have been cited for the same thing.

The REAL Cheats aka “Gaming the System”

The instructor simply cannot keep up if the student is determined to “win” by cheating. In fact, these students have changed the term “cheating” to “gaming the system.” Cheating has now become a challenge to today’s student. We are teaching the “video game” generation and instead of the expectation being to “level up” and THEN move forward, the internet is showing them the cheat codes. Even worse, this has become culturally acceptable, even revered.

Some students say it is because they feel empowered if they can “game” the system. Others feel that they “deserve” good grades simply for submitting ANYTHING because they feel the system is antiquated and “stupid.” So why the disconnect?

In the Plagiarism Today article titled “The Impact of Social Media on Plagiarism,” author Jonathan Bailey posits that social media has an effect since by sharing, re-tweeting, and the like, students are always copying and pasting someone else’s content without attribution and think little about it. He feels there is a disconnect between academia and today’s students whereby the instructor will discuss the “perils of plagiarism” but their “real world” is different. He suggests creating a “wall that highlights why writing for academia is different and why the rules of social media don’t apply.”

While this is good advice on the surface, it still only addresses those “accidental plagiarists” more than it does the “gamers.” So, how can we address the gamers?

Paper Mills, Homework Sites, and Worse

Although plagiarism software companies have plugged most of the holes from the older tricks and tweaks students use, the newer “games” involve a pretty lucrative business model. Not only can today’s student jump online to a homework site and grab that paper on Brown v. Board of Education (1954), they can also use any major credit card or a PayPal account and order that same paper from a paper mill or pay someone who swears they can enter code to cheat the software. Far worse, there are now companies popping up that will take a student’s entire course for them for a fee.

My initial cursory Internet research showed me paper mills on all the major social media sites. Even Pinterest has ads for homework helps, cheating helps, and paper mills. However, it’s not just PAPERS. I found entire tests and test banks online on the “tutoring” sites and “homework help” sites listing all the major colleges and universities that use them. On many of these sites, the hook is that they allow you to access and download “free papers” depending on how many homework assignments and tests you upload for others to “view.” One especially frightening site on Pinterest even had this tagline for PARENTS: “Assist your child by appointing him/her a personal writer by stating, ‘I am ready to pay someone to do my child’s school homework’. . . alleviate all your parental worries this way!”

Not only are the paper mills targeting your students now, they’re convincing PARENTS that they needn’t worry about their child passing as long as they HIRE OUT all their work. And speaking of hiring work out…….Yes, there are companies out there now that parents and students can pay to take their entire course for them. DOES plagiarism software catch all of this? Of course NOT. Although to be fair, they can find some of those pesky “homework help” sites.

So what is an instructor to do?

While we will never eliminate plagiarism and outright cheating entirely, next week we will discuss some ways to get proactive in your classroom to help minimize these issues.

More on that in the second half of this article!