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Internet makes cheating easier

Study: students are tempted by shortcuts during finals

Tribune Media Service

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — College students stressed out about big term papers due soon might think back thankfully to those TV advertisements broadcast during the NCAA basketball tournament in March.

They offered help — for a price — from a Web site,, a digital library with 35,000 complete books.

For $149.95 a year, $19.95 a month or $9.95 a week, a student can do an electronic search for books on a specific topic, read them online, mark good pages, write notes in the margins, save the work and print out a perfectly formatted bibliography.

Internet libraries such as Questia, which came online in January, are making research a lot easier for college and high school students.

Although Questia is a legitimate research tool when used properly, some professors, administrators and students say the Internet’s ease might be tempting students to cheat.

Internet plagiarism is on the rise.

l All five of this year’s academic dishonesty cases at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., involved Internet plagiarism.

l An English professor at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville flunked two students who had purchased the same paper from a Web site and turned it in.

l A history professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City has taught there only two years but already has caught three students turning in papers from the Internet.

When millions of pieces of information show up at a click of a button, and students no longer must trudge to the library or write sloppy notes by hand, some are tempted to buy or take an entire paper from the Internet. Or they log on to a paper-writing Web site and hire a stranger to write a research paper, customized to meet a class assignment.

In fall 1999 one in 20 students surveyed at small- to medium-size competitive colleges said they had turned in a paper taken in whole or in large part from the Internet. One in 10 had done “cut-and-paste plagiarism,” using a couple of sentences here or there from Web sites but not citing those sources in footnotes or in a bibliography.

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Among high school students, the numbers were even higher. One in seven took a paper in whole or large part, and one in two acknowledged cut-and-paste plagiarism, said the survey’s author, Don McCabe, who teaches organizational management at Rutgers University.

Internet plagiarism is not a “runaway phenomenon,” but his survey “underscores that there is a cohort that is growing up with the Internet that is acquiring these habits and are going to take them to college,” he said.

Punishment usually is not harsh, officials at colleges say. Often the matter is handled quietly between the teacher and the student and results in one of three things: the student rewrites the paper, gets a failing grade for the paper or fails the course.

Even when Internet plagiarism is reported to the dean of students or provost, students are rarely, if ever, suspended or expelled.

“If colleges don’t start doing more to lay out expectations for students to help them understand appropriate use of the Internet, we’re going to have a problem,” McCabe said.

Shona Kelly Wray, the UMKC history professor who has caught three students plagiarizing from the Internet, is urging other professors to get tough with students who cheat that way.

She was especially appalled when a master’s degree student turned in a paper he had purchased on the Internet. She wanted him kicked out of the master’s program.

Other professors thought the student was overworked in his last semester and had made one bad decision. They let him stay and graduate.

“There is so much available on the Internet,” Kelly Ray said. “There are excellent Web sites run by universities that I find helpful in teaching.” But students still should learn how to do the old-style research, using books and journals, she said.

“There’s not enough attention on teaching students how to write and how to research, and so they turn to the Internet.”

Although many professors and honest students accuse plagiarizers of being lazy and unethical, Kelly Wray blames weak high schools.

“The reason there is so much plagiarism going on is the students are not equipped to write the papers,” she said. “They just don’t have the skills to write on their own. They’re worried if they turn in a paper that’s full of grammar errors or poorly organized, that is going to count against them more than something that looks professional and polished (but is plagiarized).”

Scott Alberts, who teaches statistics at Truman State, says students in focus groups on cheating say that cheaters are just being smart by using the resources available to them, including the Internet.

Because some Truman State professors and students complained about the growing Internet plagiarism problem, campus leaders are working to rewrite the honor code to toughen penalties and to make discipline uniform.

Karl Whiteside, a senior from St. Louis who is in Alberts’ class, says he believes cheaters are just doing what they can to get out of college in four years. The high pressure of a competitive college gives students incentive to cheat.

“We really think the university kind of creates an environment (for cheating),” Whiteside said. “There’s so much emphasis on grades that students will do anything they can, even if it means buying a paper online.”

Some professors and teachers are getting better at catching cheaters. If plagiarism is suspected, the teacher searches for a phrase from the paper using a search engine, such as The paper the student copied often pops up on the computer screen.

Professors say they usually recognize a final term paper that is not a student’s work. During the semester, they become familiar with the student’s weaknesses and writing style through in-class assignments and shorter papers.

Some professors aware of the growing problem are changing their class assignments. Some require more drafts of papers and make students turn in copies of research materials. Some do not let students choose their topics anymore. Each student instead writes on the same narrow topic. Some professors are de-emphasizing research paper grades in the overall course grades.

Kelly Wray began making those changes, as well as giving a minilecture each semester about the evils of plagiarism. Some professors do not often use the Internet, she said, which causes students to think they can slip someone else’s work by them.

“Professors are really anchored in the book and printed culture,” she said. “But the students aren’t.”

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