It is midnight and Johnny Student has a history paper about the construction of the Berlin Wall due at 8 in the morning.
He put off the assignment for a month and hasn’t written a single word. All he has done is checked out a couple of books from the library on the subject.
It looks like Johnny is gearing up for an all-nighter. However, with the click of a mouse, Johnny could search the Internet, copy materials he finds and paste them into his story. If he has a credit card, he could even buy a term paper from one of a variety of companies willing to sell them.
Academic officials are trying to make sure Johnny does not take this easy way out. They are trying to stay one step ahead of the cheaters by using technology of their own and even changing their assignments.
In the information age, cyberplagiarism is a persistent problem. Typing in the phrase “buy term papers” in a search engine yields 142,000 hits. Web sites like Perfect Term Papers advertise custom term papers. Fees range for $7.95 per page with five or more days’ notice to $24.95 per page for next- morning service.
Eighteen-year-old Tom Gallant, a senior at Scotia-Glenville High School and president of the National Honor Society, said he believes reasons students cheat include poor time management or they are worried about getting penalized for not handing a homework assignment. Laziness is another factor. Students sometimes have a cavalier attitude about taking information, especially off the Internet.
“Most students are open about plagiarism and how they just take huge chunks of essays and turn it in [as] theirs,” he said.
Eighteen-year-old Jack Lewis, a senior and Student Senate president, said he believes close to 99 percent of students have cheated at least once in some way in their academic career. Some of the most common forms of cheating are copying and sharing answers on assignments, especially if students are not interested.
“If someone is being forced to do a worksheet in a subject and they just want to get it done, that greatly increases the likelihood they’re going to cheat,” he said.
He personally does not know of anyone who has copied an essay or cheated on a test. He said there is no way he would ever take someone else’s work or cheat on a test.
Scotia-Glenville Director of Media Services Jan Tunison said some students are still trying to refine their research skills and do not know how to research and cite sources. Others resort to taking someone else’s writing because they are pressed for time with after school activities and sports, jobs and family obligations.
She added teachers should create assignments requiring more critical thinking. For example, she said the high school’s Participation in Government students research and propose a change to a district education policy.
“Obviously, that’s not going to be out there on the Internet,” she said.
Tunison said during 9th grade orientation requires students read and summarize the academic integrity policy.
The school’s Code of Conduct says punishments could include failing on the project or quiz, reduced or failing grade for the quarter or course, a report in the student’s permanent record, detention or suspension from school, canceling of scholarships, letters of recommendations or membership in the National Honor Society or even criminal prosecution in extreme cases involving falsifying of records.
Some districts are using technology to fight back. Julie Heller, kindergarten through 12 English and library coordinator for the Schenectady School District, said students are required to submit their papers through a Web site called turnitin.com.
The turnitin.com software will alert students if they have taken too much of someone else’s words. Teachers can also type in sections of the students’ papers to see if it comes up on the Internet as a paper for sale. Heller said sometimes students’ plagiarism is inadvertent. “Students have a hard time understanding that cutting and pasting and changing a few words doesn’t make it OK,” she said.
She said another strategy especially used by English teachers is to make the students write every day so they become familiar with each student’s writing style. “If they hand in a paper that’s completely out of that student’s writing [character], it sends up a red flag,” she said.
Turnitin founder John Barrie, the executive officer of iParadigms, said he created the software after seeing “rampant” when he worked at the University of California at Berkeley. Students recycled papers from previous years, turned in the same paper to multiple classes, shared papers with friends in other classes and used the Internet like a “cut-and paste encyclopedia.” “They were getting away with it,” he said.
The company’s software searches the Internet every second for content including books and journal articles. They have licensing agreements for all of their commercial content and every submitted paper becomes part of the database. It also has a database of more than 50 million papers. Now, instead of the instructor making an accusation about plagiarism, the student could deny, the professor has some hard data to back up the assertion.
Barrie said the turnitin software is licensed to about 8,000 high schools, colleges and graduate schools in more than 103 countries.
Scotia-Glenville does not use the turnitin program. Tunison said there is some controversy nationally about using this software, especially regarding who owns the work. Also, she said statistics have shown the software is only around 60 percent effective in finding plagiarized work.
Union College has been exploring academic integrity issues since the fall of 2006 as part of its “Rapaport Ethics Across the Curriculum Initiatives.”
“The idea there is to get people to see that ethics isn’t something that’s got nothing to do with everyday life,” said Bob Baker, a professor of philosophy and chairman of the initiatives.
The program is named after Michael Rapaport, a White Plains businessman and Union College alumnus who donated money to start the program.
For example, Baker said in biology class, they can discuss the case of South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-Suk, who falsified research saying he had created stem cells by cloning human embryos. Baker said a business class at the college welcomed a guest speaker Walt Pavlo, a former executive at WorldCom who served time in federal prison for accounting fraud at the defunct telecommunications company.
Also as part of the discussion, Baker said the college is considering bringing back the “honor code” prevalent among universities in the late 19th and early century. This is a system where students pledged not to cheat and only submit original work. The second part of the pledge is for students to report any violations they see.
Whereas in the old honor code, a single act of dishonesty could mean expulsion, the new system would set up student courts where offenders are judged by their peers. He said he wants sense to have a sense of right and wrong.
“We’re an educational institution. We don’t want to become cops. We want to be teachers. And one of the things we want to teach people is how to do the right thing,” he said.
The Center for Academic Integrity — based at Clemson University — has been studying academic integrity issues for 15 years.
More than 70 percent of students of students surveyed by the center report cheating in some way, according to Daniel Wueste, the director of the Rutland Institute for Ethics, which houses the center.
Wueste said cheating behavior emerges as early as middle school. Reasons include trying to stay in school, making sure they keep their scholarship, attempting to please their parents and procrastinating. Wueste said there is also the idea that “everybody does it.”
The center tries to convince students cheating is not a victimless crime.
For example, Wueste said if an instructor grades a test on a curve, those who did not cheat will get lower grades.
Also, Wueste said the teacher will not be able to gauge if students have grasped the material and students will not have learned it. Employers take students’ college degrees as credentials indicating they are qualified to do the work.
“What do we say about a mechanical engineer who is designing bridges that cheated on his exams, or the EMT or his accountant?” he said.
Wueste said our culture portrays people as a “tattletale” or “narc” — the current popular term referring to an undercover narcotics officer. He said students have told him that under no circumstances would they tell on someone.
The goal is to drill this lessons about academic integrity into students, Wueste said.
“They’ll begin to recognize the way integrity, ethics is woven into the fabric of life,” he said.
More from The Daily Gazette: