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Analysis

How schools beat the net cheats

Posted on 16 Feb 2010 at 11:44

Dr Bender claims Turnitin is “much swifter” than manually checking papers for plagiarism.

“On my own courses it probably saves me a few hours,” she said, although as an academic conduct officer for Cranfield University, she checks papers for several classes besides her own. But it isn’t a silver bullet.

Dr Bender says the results produced by Turnitin are indicators of potential problems, not iron-clad proof of a student’s guilt or innocence. “I’ve had a Turnitin report that was 75% and not plagiarised, because everything was referenced,” she said. But she’s also seen an essay that Turnitin determined to be relatively clean at 11%, “but that 11% was pretty much all taken from one website and unacknowledged”.

Yet there’s no denying that, at its best, the system is spectacularly effective. During our investigation, PC Pro learned of a student who failed a unit after confessing to buying a final piece of coursework and handling it in as their own.

Turnitin proved its worth, returning a score in the high 80s (a mark described by an academic conduct officer (ACO) as “very substantial”) and matching the purchased essay with no fewer than three pieces of work at other institutions – making a mockery of the essay mills’ claims to provide plagiarism-free essays in the process.

The ACO told PC Pro that students tend to confess to buying essays when confronted, adding that most students blame their academic lapse on the pressures of student life or external factors.

The chances of you getting an original essay from one of these companies are very, very slim, and the chance of it staying original is even slimmer

Dr Lancaster of Birmingham City University has similar stories: students who have bought essays with assurances that the work would be original, only to find they’ve been “fleeced”. Will Murray of Turnitin developer, nLearning, says that “the chances of you getting an original essay from one of these companies are very, very slim, and the chance of it staying original is even slimmer.”

And, while Turnitin is a time-saving convenience, all of the professors and lecturers we spoke to agreed that a tutor’s knowledge of their subject and of their students are still the best tools when it comes to detecting dishonesty.

Dr Bender relates a story of a foreign student who turned in an essay with better-written English than the student was capable of. “I said, ‘You didn’t write this,’ and he said, ‘Well, of course I didn’t. My English is rubbish.’”

Instead, the student took work from other sources, and was given a viva – an oral test. “He was brilliant,” said Dr Bender. “He knew it forwards, backwards, inside out.” The student simply didn’t understand the rules, something academics are increasingly likely to see.

Beating the system

Turnitin may be a formidable tool, but essay mills and careful cheats can beat it. “I’m quite sure there are people writing stuff out there that I wouldn’t spot,” said Dr Bender.

So how do schools and universities overcome the more resourceful cheats? Dr Lancaster said the answer could lie in “designing out” opportunities to plagiarise. “Once an assignment has been used once or twice, you get model answers on the internet,” he said. “You’re tempting students to cheat.”

Regularly refreshing course material or tailoring coursework to individual students would reduce the chances of accidental plagiarism, although this of course means more work for over-stretched teachers and lecturers.

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User comments

dont blame the kids.

blame the lazy f***wit teachers that dont pull them up on it.

By darkhairedlord on 16 Feb 2010

What???

Do we blame the police for crime?

Think about what you are saying. Isn't it about time that parents were held responsible for children not having manners, morals and respect. Hmmm ... Interesting concept.

By carlcunningham on 23 Feb 2010

Non-english letter

Hummm... I wonder how this deals with symbols that look like letters.

I've heard of a chap who plagiarised his entire dissertation and got away with it by substituting the letter 'a' with a symbol from Word that looks like 'a' but isn't detected by Word as an 'a'. The result, lots of spelling mistakes but not plagiarism.

Of course, this was one of those friend of a friend stories.

By josephlck on 25 Feb 2010

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