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How to use the system to get an A+

(aka: the teachers 30 second guide to plagiarism )

This page originates originally from disturbing developments on the WWW, the apparent blindness of teachers to this phenomenon, and the apparent willingness of students to exploit this loophole.

It is not just me who is talking about this - read what the world press has to say on this topic or other people http://latin.about.com/homework/latin/library/weekly/aa012300d.htm

The danger of discussing this in the first place is that this document, itself, will become an instrument of darkness in the hands of students - a guide to the most efficient methods of plagiarism. Worse still, this document could put teachers off using the Internet with their students - that is NOT my intention, please read on...

I doubt in education there ever was an era that could qualify as the good old days. Instruction, and good instructional design has always been about bringing out the best in our students. In the days since the printing press, copying other peoples words was labour intensive - you had to manually write or type from printed resources. Generally, in a school library, there were only a few sources of information and plagiarism was fairly easy to identify (particularly if the teacher was well-read in the topic).

Our students are now wired (they access the Internet at home and school) and with this new communications medium there exists opportunities for students to use and abuse a huge and varied collection of information sources of varied quality. It is not possible for teachers to be conversant with all the resources available on a particular topic. How the learners in our care use online information in the context of our lessons and assessment items is the focus of this document.

What is the problem?

People plagiarize.

Plagiarism is a multifaceted activity. There are many degrees of plagiarism, each of which is unacceptable depending on the activity it takes place in. Apart from the copyright implications of plagiarism, students use it to gain unfair advantage over their peers.

You and I probably have a fairly good understanding of what constitutes unfair advantage, but where does that stand with the wired generation? If we fail to specifically prohibit an activity can our students adopt it with impunity? They will, of course, argue that they should be allowed to use whatever loop-hole they can find (I may agree with them on that point).

If our assessment requires students to "Find out about <insert topic of your choice> 500 words or more", are we aware that it is trivial to copy-n-paste a solution? Are we, in fact, legitimising that behaviour by asking students to complete an item without any significant cognitive load or means to certify authorship?

It would be wrong of me to suggest that all teachers set such assignments, or that all students would copy someone elses work as their own - this is not the case. It is correct, however, that the wired generation have much greater opportunities to do this undetected than ever before thanks to the 'Net.

In the age of the computer game, cheat codes are the norm, short-cutting through an activity is accepted and a new morality is evolving - what can be done about this? The next section deals with the only real weapon - KNOWLEDGE.

What workarounds are available?

Know thy enemy.

In this section, I will attempt to provide annotated links to places on the Web that provide the richest resources for a plagiarist. It is not complete (anyone who knows the Web will realise that is not possible), but is sufficient to gain valuable insight to the problem.

First a little perspective - EVERY site on the Web allows the user to copy what is displayed on the screen. Preventing a visitor from copying what is on the screen is very difficult, and few sites bother to try as they know there is always a workaround somewhere.

There are sites that act as Data Warehouses - vast Databases of documents written (mostly by students) for others to copy and submit as their own. Some of these sites charge, some are free, still others offer tools that grammatically alter writing to make detection less likely....

I have provided, as a separate document, an annotated webliography of the best (of the worst) cheat sites I have been able to find. It is a separate document because, unfortunately, I have been able to locate a HUGE number of such sites.

There is a very common (and easy to access) 'fly in the ointment' worth noting here. Our friends at Micro$oft have, as part of many versions of Word (certainly versions 95+) provided potential plagiarists with a dream tool - Auto Summarise.

Tools -> Autosummarize

Microsoft Word's Autosummarise - Shamelessly screengrabbed by wOnKo

You can ask Word to re-write and re-structure and re-size your harvested material - what were they thinking? I have also heard (although getting actual details on these is a little like applying lipstick to a chicken) there are illicit tools that also 'dumb-down' writing to selected age vocabulary and error level, inserting appropriate spelling errors and grammatical misconstructions to further cloud the issue.

What can we do?

Review is what effective teachers do all the time ....

Our options are many :-

IWHO, the last option is the only sustainable viewpoint - or am I missing something more obvious?

OPINION: If copy-n-paste can be used to arrive at a solution, then the question was probably faulty to begin with.

The previous statement is not altogether rigorous - the solution depends on the instructional outcomes the designer had in mind for the item. There are valid 'Net-based activities that involve harvesting ideas from a variety of sources. Treasure hunt style exercises can be used to great effect, increasing students understanding of what was said and where. These activities, however, don't usually involve students in higher order thinking.

SIMPLE TEST: Can my students copy-n-paste someone elses work to satisfy the criteria set for this item? If yes, is this an acceptable educational goal for this item?

Pass me a spanner

There are a number of tools that are publically available to detect straight copy and paste:

There is a lot of writing and research into this form of cheating. Below is a collection of search strings used with some popular search engines. Use these as starting points for your personal investigation into the 'latest and greatest plagiarism.

Each visit to the above links will return in slightly different result set each time - they are dynamic requests (built at the time YOU click on these links)

... this document is a work in progress - stay tuned as my opinions crystallize. Please argue with me on this - discussion on a topic helps all concerned - make it constructive though eh? (Is this the 5 minute argument or the full half hour?)

What do you think?

Join an active online teaching community and share your opinions/concerns ...

Mail me with your ideas/feedback - I'll post it for others to see if you like.


In collecting thoughts and resources for this document, I am grateful to a large collection of teachers through QSITE-Community and OZ-Teachers mailing lists that provided encouragement and submitted URLs of sites they had heard of.

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