Online tools help U catch more cheaters

University professors reported 188 instances of cheating during the 2009-10 academic year.
By
  • GRAISON HENSLEY CHAPMAN
January 20, 2011

Academic dishonesty may be hard to catch and even harder to measure, but a hint to figuring out the trends of the perennial problem can come from following the money.

The University of Minnesota, which saw 188 reports of academic misconduct last year, subscribes to SafeAssign, a plagiarism detection software program.

Similar programs have seen sales increase in recent years.

"Sales growth has been strong," said Chris Harrick, vice president of marking for iParadigms, an anti-plagiarism software firm.

Growth of its hallmark product, the detection software Turnitin, grew nearly 12 percent in 2010, which includes its use by 200,000 more teachers and 2 million more students. Universities that contract with Turnitin-style services often have students use the software as a preventative measure.

More than 2,500 higher education institutions use Turnitin, which checks a paper’s text with the content of websites, publications and archives of student papers stored on the company’s software. Instructors can manipulate the parameters of a search down to phrases, Harrick said, including so-called "fuzzy matches" where a student adds extra words to lifted phrases.

Students are giving SafeAssign and Turnitin plenty of work. According to a 2006-10 report by Clemson University’s Center for Academic Integrity, 40 percent of students in a 14,000 undergraduate student survey admitted to lifting information without citing it at least once in the previous year, center Director Teresa Fishman said.

Over the past decade, students who approve of taking information off the Internet without citing it has decreased, Fishman said.

"Especially if they find it in multiple places," she said, "they’re just not clear about how something gets to become common knowledge."

Sharon Dzik, director for the University’s Office of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity (OCSAI), said that reported cases of scholastic dishonesty have been "fairly consistent" since she took her job in 2004. In the previous four academic years, the office received 120, 115, 163 and 188 reports on cheating from professors.

Dzik ascribes the jump between the 2007-08 and 2008-09 years to an increase in reporting fueled by student complaints over failure to punish cheating peers at one University college.

Dzik, whose office serves as the central repository for all reports of academic dishonesty, further emphasized that the center of power concerning academic honesty issues lies with both students and faculty. The primary responsibility for stopping plagiarism and other misconduct doesn’t lie with administrators, she said, but professors and, in non-deliberate cases, students.

Making clear the expectations and rules of a course is one of the most helpful ways.

"We encourage them to always make it a two-way street," she said of faculty members, urging them to include specific information about how they deal with academic misconduct on their syllabi.

‘A judgment problem’

The idea of the offending student as a habitual cheater is not necessarily accurate, Dzik said.

"It’s a judgment problem," she said of many students’ offenses. "Maybe they did [it] because they ran out of time and their time management is bad, or maybe they did because they’re really stressed out and they maybe could’ve gone to some counseling." She said most reports come in after midterms and finals have been graded.

She added that the majority of students eventually take responsibility for their wrongdoing.

"Faculty have the first responsibility," she said, noting that a course’s instructor has the freedom, and the sole charge, to levy punishment of their choice for academic dishonesty.

Many give the offending student an F for the assignment or course; others assign the student to rewrite the assignment for no credit without further punishment.

Faculty members are not required to report cheating to her office, Dzik said, and some do not out of fear they will harm the student’s academic career.

‘There’s no way you can catch them’

Jordan Kavoosi owns the Essay Writing Company, an Apple Valley-based online firm that writes custom academic papers for university students. He says that administrators will never be able to catch his clients.

"They can try, but there’s no way you can catch them. There’s no way you can regulate someone’s e-mail," he said.

Dzik agrees.

"We will never have an idea of how many people are actually cheating," she said. "There are so many ways to get away with it."

Highlighting the international and Internet-based nature of modern plagiarism, Kavoosi said only 2 to 5 percent of his business comes from Minnesota colleges — most of his clients are students at schools in New York, California and Florida.

Despite the small share of business Minnesota schools represent for his company, he has no shortage of stories about its students.

On one occasion, he said, a woman came to his office after her professor warned students that she knew of all the so-called essay mills and the other ways that students cheated.

The student took the warning as a tip and stopped by Kavoosi’s office to buy a paper. She was never caught, he said.

"She said that her teacher talked about us in front of the whole class," Kavoosi said. "What great marketing, right?"

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