Avoiding Plagiarism

Plagiarism is an issue that every college campus faces at one time or another.  This is not surprising according to recent data reported in an article published by Campus Technology Magazine:

“Plagiarism appears to be endemic in applications, according to a recently published study by plagiarism prevention vendor iParadigms. The company examined 453,000 applications submitted to institutions of higher ed that were provided by an application service used by those colleges and universities. It found that 44 percent of the personal statements contained matching text and that 36 percent contained significant matching text, suggesting, according to iParadigms, plagiarism, collusion, or the use of recycled or purchased documents.” (http://campustechnology.com/articles/2010/03/01/plagiarism-may-be-rife-in-higher-ed-applications.aspx)

If this level of plagiarism is occurring before our students even walk in the doors, it is not statistically surprising that it is also present once they are in our classrooms.  However, not all plagiarism is malicious.  According to Beutte et al. (2008) there are several reasons why students might plagiarize including: student inexperience with citation practices, student pressure to succeed, and, least frequently, conscious wrongdoing.  Given that most cases of plagiarism are non-malicious, how do we as educators empower our students to more accurately recognize cases of plagiarism and avoid making this error? Fortunately, there are several electronic tools at our disposal that can come to our aid!

For example, did you know that there is a plagiarism detection tool available in myWPI (BlackBoard)?  This tool is available to all users of myWPI using a feature called Safe Assignment.  “SafeAssign” can be used in three unique ways from within your myWPI site. First, this tool can be used to create a SafeAssignment for student drafts.  This allows students to submit drafts of their own work and receive a Matching Report on their submission.  By doing so, students can review their own work for plagiarism and address any problem areas prior to submission of their paper.  Next this tool can be used to create a SafeAssignment for faculty to collect final student papers. This provides only the instructor with a Matching Report that they can then use to judge the originality of the paper.  Finally, SafeAssign has a feature called Direct Submit which allows an instructor to submit student works that they suspect of plagiarism.

When a paper is submitted to SafeAssign, the tool checks all submitted papers against the following databases:

  • Internet – comprehensive index of documents available for public access on the Internet
  • ProQuest ABI/Inform database with over 1,100 publication titles and about 2.6 million articles from ’90s to present time, updated weekly (exclusive access)
  • Institutional document archives containing all papers submitted to SafeAssign by users in their respective institutions
  • Global Reference Database containing papers that were volunteered by students from Blackboard client institutions to help prevent cross-institutional plagiarism

It then generates a matching report which details sections of the submission that might be considered plagiarized.  To view an example matching report click here: http://kb.blackboard.com/download/attachments/37191686/SafeAssignment+Report.png

If SafeAssign is not your ticket, perhaps a simple internet search might work for you! Internet searching is a good option for detecting cut-and-paste plagiarism you suspect was obtained from a web source. While this is a good option for many people there are a few limitations on a typical web search of which you should be aware.  For example, most web searches have a 10-32 word search limit.  If you enter if you enter text that is longer than this into the search box, your search engine will truncate the entry and only look for the first 10-32 words! Another limitation to be aware of is that web searches are based on semantics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantics) and not on structure.  Semantic searching will aid you in finding textural plagiarism, but it will not aide you in finding cases of plagiarism where a student has duplicated the structure of another’s work.  Furthermore, web searches work best on contiguous blocks of text.  According to Thomas Crombez, of the blog Doing Digital History,

“The Wikipedia criticism that the search engine method “is less effective when the plagiarizer has mixed multiple small fragments from different sources” still holds very much true. Some students take an inspiring chunk of text and start ‘remixing’ it in a way that is very close to plagiarism, yet is more contrived than simple copy-pasting. I find it hard to judge them harshly, since some of them are obviously unaware that what they’re doing is fraudulent.”   (http://doingdigitalhistory.wordpress.com/2010/02/06/diy-plagiarism-detection/)

Despite its limitations, the internet search can still be a wonderful plagiarism awareness resource for both you and your students!

OK, so what if you like the internet option, but want more?  For free?  There are several copy paste options available out there on the web.  These are typically much more than just a big Google search.  Most of these sites use algorithms to parses the entire document into overlapping phrase elements.  This allows the tool to search on each phrase element independently and then compile the results.  This means that unlike a typical web search the  entire document is compared not just the first 32 words!  These free tools can be a great resource for your students as they are developing their assignments.  Want to try a few out?  Out of the 10 we tried these three came out on top: