Web site deters college cheaters

As the semester comes to an end this week, students will be taking final exams and turning in term papers. However, students should beware that any paper they submit may be tested for plagiarism with a new software that is being offered to USF’s faculty and staff.

At the beginning of this semester, faculty and staff were able to request to subscribe to an e-mail account at Turnitin.com. The Web site allows professors to crosscheck students’ papers against databases to identify plagiarism.

USF is not the only school in the state that is licensing Turnitin.com. The University of Florida, Florida State University and University of Central Florida are also using the site to deter students from cheating and plagiarizing.

Susan MacManus, a USF political science professor, said students don’t understand that purchasing papers online or not citing information correctly in a term paper is not only unethical but is intellectual theft.

“The average student does not know the extreme consequences of plagiarism at a university,” MacManus said. “I, along with other professors, see a lot of downloaded stuff in papers, and I am just sick and tired of it.”

Turnitin.com serves about 3,500 community colleges, universities and high schools in 51 countries. About 20,000 papers are submitted during peak usage periods, such as the last week of school.

The site was established by John Barrie, who was a teaching assistant at the University of California at Berkeley in 1996. Seven years ago, a number of Barrie’s students came into the teacher assistant’s office saying that cheating was a common practice for students in their class.

Barrie, who received his doctorate in biophysics, said he was surprised to learn what was happening in his class and at Berkeley. So he thought he might be able to come up with a solution.

“I did some research and found that no one was doing anything about cheating, specifically with the Internet,” Barrie said.

Barrie then used computer software to look for word matches in lines of term papers.

“I found that it was just not fair for students who were making the grade and were competing with their peers who were cheating. I couldn’t sit back and watch people cheat. It wasn’t fair,” Barrie said.

According to the Web site, Turnitin.com has deterred plagiarism for nearly 6 million students and educators worldwide since its inception. Universities such as USF pay a few thousand dollars a year for its services.

The process works like this: Students send their papers electronically to professors or directly to Turnitin.com. The software then compares the paper to three databases that contain online books and journals, other student papers and Web sites on the Internet that are updated daily.

Barrie said that within minutes, parts of the paper are underlined and colored when the copy matches verbatim a source in one of the databases. Each paper is then categorized by how much of the paper is taken from other sources, highlighting direct plagiarism or incorrect citations. Barrie added that the faculty determines the student’s punishment.

“Turnitin.com is not to help catch cheaters,” Barrie said. “The value of the site is to deter cheating and to help correct mistakes. At the end of the day, that is all that matters is; that faculty are using it as a deterrent.”

Tom Miller, dean of students, said having such a program available to faculty makes students realize that there are risks if they get caught.

“If students know they will be held accountable, it will help as a deterrent,” Miller said. “It is not fair for those who do their work (to be held up to those who cheat or plagiarize).”

Plagiarism is nothing new to colleges, but the Internet has made it easier for students to cut-and-paste information.

The Center of Academic Integrity at Duke University reports that “Internet plagiarism is a growing concern on all campuses as students struggle to understand what constitutes acceptable use of the Internet.” In addition, in a survey taken in 1999 by the Center, 10 percent of students admitted to engaging in such behavior, but that number increased in 2001 to 41 percent. Also 68 percent of students surveyed said in 2001 that they thought that Internet plagiarism was not a serious issue.

Miller said there are ranges of consequences one can receive for academic dishonesty. The Student Handbook, under the section of Academic Policies, states that, “Each individual is expected to earn his or her degree on the basis of personal effort. Consequently, any form of cheating on examination or plagiarism on assigned papers constitutes unacceptable deceit and dishonesty.”

The Handbook also states the guidelines for punishment of academic dishonesty. Punishment ranges from the student receiving an “F” or a “zero” on the paper or test, etc., or could result in suspension or expulsion from the university. The drop and forgiveness policies will be revoked for a student accused of academic dishonesty and the student’s transcript will read “FF.”

“It depends on the gravity of the offense,” Miller said.

Miller added that there is no real comprehensive data that tracks how many students at USF have been caught. He said this is because the faculty don’t always report it.

“The professor may have them redo the paper, give them a lower grade or tell them to retake the class,” Miller said.

Diane Williams, director for USF’s Center for 21st Century Teaching Excellence, said not only does Turnitin.com help faculty with the ethical issue of plagiarism, it also teaches students the correct ways of citation and academic integrity.

“It is a positive tool to help students understand ethical standards,” Williams said.

Williams said workshops are held in the Center for faculty about academic integrity and how to inform their students of proper citation.

“We tell them if they are going to use Turnitin.com that they should tell the students beforehand so the students are aware of it,” Williams said.

As of now, Williams said about 30 instructors have an account with Turnitin.com, but only about half of them use the service.

MacManus said it is important that students understand what cheating and plagiarism are.

“Students need to be taught the basic penalties,” MacManus said.

But senior Shelby McCarter said she thinks Turnitin.com is an easy way out for professors and won’t help deter cheaters.

“A cheater will always be a cheater, no matter what,” McCarter said.

Yet Edward Hoover, a student and teacher’s assistant in the psychology department, said he thinks having Turnitin.com is a good thing for all parties involved.

“I think it will help improve the quality of people that graduate, because they will have to actually do work,” Hoover said. “But I don’t think cheaters will catch on until they are punished.”

Jay Thompson, graduate assistant for MacManus, said he thinks the technology and use of Turnitin.com will soon become popular at USF and other universities.

“It saves time and more professors will catch on and use it once they hear others are,” Thompson said.

Barrie said his ultimate goal for Turnitin.com is to make it fair for those students who work hard to earn the grade.

“All the universities pay good money to get the service and, like referees on a playing field, we help make sure students in classes are on the same playing field to earn that grade,” Barrie said.