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As the Internet grows. so does plagiarism – and efforts to detect it

Students are more dependent than ever on technology for their academic needs. The Internet, an easily accessible database of the world, is the increasing source of plagiarism according to a study at the University of Washington.

“I guess plagiarism is tempting because it is really easy. Anyone can do it and not many teachers check for it,” says Jennifer Huang, an FAU student. Many students feel this way and decide to plagiarize.

Another student, Douglas DeJong, says,” I have tons of friends who have copied and never got caught. It’s easy and teachers rarely take action. Plus you can always deny it.”

Plagiarism.org, a Web site dedicated to informing students of methods to avoid plagiarism, states that according to surveys in U.S. News and News Report, “75 percent of college students admit to cheating and 90 percent of college students didn’t believe cheaters would get caught.”

These statistics include cheating in a broad sense, not only written assignments but on tests, as well. Still, according to the site, in a sample of 1,800 students at nine state universities, “84 percent admitted to cheating on written assignments,” and “52 percent had copied a few sentences from a Web site without citing the source.”

Plagiarism is defined by the Webster’s Dictionary as the act “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own.” It is a widespread practice that can be prevented with correct citing and paraphrasing, and there are plenty of Web sites willing to teach students to do this.

Yet plagiarism is still abundant and easier with the Internet. Echeat.com, cyberessays.com, and freeessays123.com are just a few Web sites where students can download already written papers on almost any subject and hand them in as their own.

FAU has a strict policy about academic honesty, which includes plagiarism. Penalties include an “F” on the plagiarized assignment, an “F” in the course, suspension and a note of academic irregularity attached to the student’s academic transcript that could be removed if the student has no second offense and graduates or does not attend the university for a full year after the incident.

Plagiarism is most common in the humanities fields, according to Edward Pratt, FAU's dean of undergraduate admissions. FAU does not have a specific record of plagiarism cases at the university because, Pratt said, “most cases of plagiarism are handled between the instructor and student.

Many faculty believe plagiarism is increasing because of the volume of material on any subject you can find on the Internet. Also, many high schools are not very vigilant about plagiarism.”

Educators believe plagiarism should be punished harshly, yet many professors try to avoid a confrontation because they do not want to damage a student’s academic history in such severe ways.

“I think that too many faculty do not treat plagiarism seriously enough. Many would prefer to fail the student on the assignment, rather than fail the student in the course send[ing] the wrong message to students — that they can plagiarize without serious repercussions,” Pratt said.

Some college teachers feel guilty about failing students.

Richard Potter, an FAU English instructor, said plagiarism makes him feel “sad because depending on the circumstances and the extent, the student will fail the course, but also because the student is fundamentally missing the spirit behind the academic enterprise.”

Gerald Sim, an assistant professor of communication, said plagiarism makes him feel “disappointed as one expects honesty,” and “annoyed and occasionally tickled that someone thought it could be that easy.”

Just as the Internet multiplies the magnitude of plagiarism, it also houses resources to detect it. Web sites such as turnitin.com and plagiarismdetect.com allow students to submit their papers and identifies any plagiarized material, even providing links to the exact Web page it is from.

FAU recently updated its plagiarism detection. This past summer, the university switched from turnitin to SafeAssign, a similar program used to detect plagiarism in student papers.

"There was a concern about the yearly costs associated with the turnitin license,” Pratt said. “SafeAssign was free, and many universities were making the switch to SafeAssign, with very positive results.

"We wanted to get the views of FAU faculty before making any decision, so I asked five faculty to participate in a pilot study. The faculty agreed to use SafeAssign in their classes and sent me their comments.”

SafeAssign did present some minor issues. Since SafeAssign is new compared with turnitin, it has significantly less information in its database. But papers and information can be easily uploaded by faculty. Also, it does not omit quoted materials from being marked as plagiarized materials in papers like turnitin does.

SafeAssign is just as effective as turnitin with very minor drawbacks, educators said.

“None of the negative features of SafeAssign that faculty brought to our attention outweighed its positive features and some found features in SafeAssign that were preferable to those in turnitin,” Pratt said. “There was a clear consensus that FAU should make the switch to SafeAssign.”

In the 2009 summer term there were 60 courses registered with SafeAssign and 58 for the 2009 Fall term with more expected according to Alison Marcoff, assistant director of online client services for Information Resource Management.

In the technologically driven world of today where a plagiarized essay is just a click away, temptation is very strong. Now with programs like SafeAssign, plagiarism detection could be just as effortless.




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