Thursday, March 08, 2001

Schools confront Web of deceit

Student cheaters tap Internet

By Ben L. Kaufman and Jaclyn Giovis
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Internet plagiarism has become so easy that Tristate college teachers rarely find cheaters still willing to copy from books.

        With a few keystrokes, students can punch in a topic. They electronically copy whatever's on the screen and pass it off as their own work.

        Increasingly, suspicious professors are doing the same thing. A few keystrokes and they can nail students who present Internet material as their own.

        No one knows how many students plagiarize but among freshmen composition students, “it is happening more and more, and it's getting more serious,” says Dianne Sadoff, head of English at Miami University. “They all now involve Internet cheating.”

        Last year, she handled about 15 plagiarism cases from freshman comp classes. That was double from the previous year. Five years ago, Dr. Sadoff says, more than one or two freshman cases of purloined paragraphs or papers would have surprised her.

        To cope with computer-savvy students, Dr. Sadoff and colleagues on other campuses are spreading the word about Internet sites that can help identify plagiarism.

        “It's easier to catch a student now,” says William H. Hardesty, associate chairman of undergraduate English at Miami. “You type the subject into a search engine, and you'll come up with the (same) source in a matter of minutes.”

        Typical penalties at Tristate colleges range from an F on the paper to an F for the course.

        Because freshmen appear most likely to plagiarize, professors say, The Enquirer interviewed men and women who teach required composition courses to thousands of newcomers every year.

        To get the students' side of this issue, dozens of University of Cincinnati freshmen completed anonymous questionnaires about plagiarism.

        Teachers say the wealth of Internet sources makes plagiarism tempting and easy. Students need not even walk to the library.

        As one UC freshman said, “I rewrote sentences in a different style. Of course, I got away with it like everyone else does. Everybody PLAGIASES! Its okay.”

Melissa Sanders
Melissa Sanders
        That anonymous response doesn't faze the student's teacher, adjunct instructor Melissa Sanders, who has more than 100 freshman comp students each quarter.

        “It's amazing how willing they are to do it,” Ms. Sanders says. She says students tell her that they're comfortable with cheating to survive tough schedules and boring courses. One student said plagiarism is an acceptable “form of learning.”

        Quoting from the Internet — or any other source — is acceptable unless students present the work as their own.

        No one knows whether the Internet has increased plagiarism, but students who once sneakeda sentence or two into their papers from a library book now submit entire compositions downloaded from the Internet, professors say.

        It's cheaper and faster than sending away for pricey “research papers” advertised for years in campus newspapers.

        Facing a research topic, students can pick an Internet site offering free papers and other printed sources; a few clicks and they have what they want.

    Students interviewed for this story would not discuss plagiarism on the record. However, some of Melissa Sanders' freshman composition students at the University of Cincinnati responded anonymously in writing to questions she distributed for The Enquirer.
    Here are some responses:
    • “If it is easier to copy it why write it?”
    • “It's easy, fast and effective.”
    • “Everything, absolutely everything, is within the proverbial click of a button.”
    • “I do it because I work a full-time job. It's quick and easy. All you have to do is change a couple words and put your name on it. ... It is quite tempting and many students are willing to take the risk for an easy grade.”
    • “Many students feel pressure to get that A. Instead of working for it, they find it on the Internet. Many students feel they won't get caught because the resources of the Internet are huge. The chances of their teacher finding their source is tiny.”
    • “Either they're lazy, too dumb to do it themselves or don't have the time.”
    • Plagiarism is caused by teachers' high expectations and students who “want to live up to it and use any way necessary.”
    • “I would rather take an F in something that was mine than an A that wasn't mine.”
    • No, “although I used to in high school because the teachers were never smart enough to catch it.”
    • “I used the info from the site to write my paper but forgot to cite it. The teacher did not mind or notice. I believe (it) was the only paper of mine that passed that quarter.”
    • “I have never turned in work that was written by someone else. I work for my failing grades.”
    • “I have never downloaded an entire term paper or essay but I have taken (stolen) entire sentences and/or ideas.”
        “My guess is that a lot of plagiarism goes uncaught,” says Margaret Lindgren, director of UC's English composition program. She sees two or three plagiarism cases a year, which has been pretty constant, but most now involve the Internet.

        Attitude is part of the larger problem.

        “Students seem to think that the Internet is there for the taking,” says Judith Bechtel, director of writing instruction at Northern Kentucky University. She handles five or six plagiarism cases each semester, compared to one or two in pre-Internet days. Of the current cases, she estimates that 75 percent involve the Internet.

        When she encountered a recent paper that seemed too good, Dr. Bechtel entered a key phrase into an Internet search site. Up popped the original in a research journal.

        “If I'm going to give them an F, I have to have the proof in my hand,” she says.

        Had the student admitted her error, she would have escaped with an F on the paper and an assignment to write a substitute composition — on plagiarism. Unrepentant, the student flunked the course.

        Some students are catching on to their teachers' agility on the Internet, but their reactions differ.

        “Teachers seem to know all of the popular sites, and so it is almost impossible to get away with it,” a UC freshman complains.

        “Many students feel they won't get caught because the resources of the Internet are huge. The chances of their teacher finding their source is tiny,” another UC freshman says.

        As Internet plagiarism increases, freshman comp teachers are fighting back by:

        • Warning students against plagiarism at the start of each course.

        • Changing assignments from term to term.

        • Assigning research topics least likely to be on the Internet. (Compositions that combine autobiographical reflections with traditional research have become popular.)

        • Requiring preliminary drafts, research materials and notes on every paper, and rejecting papers that switch topics at the last minute.

        • Mastering Internet resources with the help of workshops and professional journals.

        None of this, however, gets at what students say causes plagiarism: a habit of cheating, sloth, too little time, too much to do.

        Plagiarism appears most frequently near finals when students “don't feel like thinking, so they cheat,” Miami's Dr. Sadoff says.

        There are other reasons.

        “The Web encourages sloppy research, and sloppy research can spill over into dishonesty pretty easily,” Miami's Dr. Hardesty says.

        UC's Dr. Lindgren agrees. “Technology implies that learning happens very quickly and research happens very easily. It doesn't.” Rather than search, read, summarize, write and cite their sources, they just “pull something off the Net.”

        Another justification — blaming high school teachers for not explaining how to use the Internet properly for research - met a mixed response.

        “You have to know when you're copying a Web site,” Dr. Sadoff says.

        But Diana Royer, director of freshman composition at Miami, says there may be something to that lament.

        “First-semester students have rarely been taught to document properly,” she says. It may be “inadvertent plagiarism” when freshmen get confused using the Web as a source.

        Whatever their reasons, even high-tech cheaters are spotted the old-fashioned way, NKU adjunct professor Judy Cooper says. “Students would be amazed how quickly we see their style.”

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