Computer software has long been used by the computer science department to uncover cheating. But on the heels of a number of plagiarism scandals at universities across the country, now professors in humanities courses such as Government 1790, “American Foreign Policy,” are following suit.
In an investigation that ended last Saturday at the University of Virginia (UVA), 45 students were dismissed and three graduates had their degrees rescinded after it was discovered that they had plagiarized on class assignments.
Gov. 1790 instructor Benjamin O. Fordham, a visiting associate professor of government, has begun using a program called Eve2 to sweep the Internet for similarities between student papers and online documents.
“My hope is that I’ll never catch anyone, that I’ll just deter everyone,” Fordham says. “Some students believe they can fool an individual faculty member, but they’re worried that some computer technology can catch them.”
Fordham says he has yet to uncover any cheaters. Students who were thinking of plagiarizing may have been scared away by the program, he believes.
“I think that students overrate the effectiveness of the software,” he says.
A Technological Terror
New software, including the Canadian-made Eve2, the website TurnItIn.com and even the homegrown program used to catch students at UVA, has enabled professors to check student papers against massive databases of online content.
UVA Professor of Physics Louis A. Bloomfield, whose software led to the dismissal of 48 individuals at the school, emphasizes that a rash of cheating has accompanied the rise of the Internet.
“It’s kind of an arms race,” Bloomfield says. “Fifty years ago, it was quite a challenge to plagiarize...then there was the Web...and things came rolling right into your desktop. What’s now happening is that the detection end is catching up.”
Bloomfield has made his program, which has the capability to search the Internet for close matches to a student’s writing, available for free on the Internet, and he says it’s been downloaded about 10,000 times.
Other services allow schools to submit student papers to a website for comparison against a database of known sources.
TurnItIn.com, which charges $1 per student per semester, searches websites which provide pre-written papers—including schoolsucks.com and lazystudent.com—for close matches to a student’s paper.
The website is currently used by several universities, including Georgetown, Cornell and Duke.
But some professors prefer to root out plagiarism without the help of computers.
Lecturer on Sociology Mark J. Zimny says he has uncovered several instances of plagiarism in his class the old-fashioned way—by getting suspicious when a paper doesn’t seem quite right.
“It’s almost like trying on a piece of clothing that isn’t made for you,” Zimny says. “It doesn’t fit the way it should.”
However, Zimny has yet to embrace anti-plagiarism software.
“This is our job,” he says. Using an anti-plagiarism service “would be like sub-contracting your grading to a grading company. I think it’s our onus as faculty to...determine whether or not it’s actually genuine work.”
Zimny also says there are security concerns of sending student work to a website like TurnItIn.com, since submitting student papers to a third party could be construed as a breach of trust and privacy.
Currently the College has no official policy on the use of such programs for disciplinary purposes, says Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68.
Fordham, too, says the benefits of the technology do not yet outweigh its drawbacks.
“It took an astounding amount of time... I don’t know that I would do this again, I would think twice or get my TF’s to do it,” he says.