Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Plagiarism and the Web

Plagiarism and the Web

The Internet provides students with wide and easy access to prepared papers, assignments, and other forms of academic work.

Cartoon caption: Really? Someone told me its not plagiarism if they're dead While the majority of the sites have pre-written papers available, some actually prepare papers for students based on their specifications (topic, length, number of references, etc.).

According to some estimates there are 3000% more sites that provide materials for students than there are sites to authenticate student work (Tests, Schechter, & Eder, 2002). Using a web-based program one study found that 30% of a large sample of Berkeley students was identified as plagiarizing directly from the Internet. (Turnitin, 2000)

There are two main strategies for dealing with Internet-based and other types of plagiarism:

  • Discouraging plagiarism
  • Improving detection techniques

Strategies to Discourage Plagiarism

1. Clearly define plagiarism, including the use of papers bought or found on the Internet.

Many students do not consider buying or using material found on the Internet as cheating or plagiarism, using an argument of the form, "If it's okay to sell it then it must be okay to buy it."

Provide explicit examples of the range of plagiarism behaviors, such as:

  • verbatim copying
  • paraphrasing (many students do not consider this plagiarism)
  • re-ordering or re-organizing the information, etc.

2. Clearly define the consequences of getting caught.

3. Provide clear examples of how and when to use citations.

4. Make your students aware that you are familiar with on-line resources for buying papers or that you have strategies and tools for evaluating the originality of their work.

5. Critique or evaluate the quality of on-line papers for your students.

The vast majority of these papers are written at the high school level, even though some advertise their papers as written by professors. Making students aware of the low quality of work that they will pay a high price for and the likely grade they will receive for it, should discourage many of them from this practice.

Three examples that are representative of the quality of the available work are:

6. Avoid using common, traditional topics.

Using the same assignment topics every year, or ones that address the major themes or issues of a domain make plagiarism easy. You can design unique assignments that still address the major themes by:

  • requiring students to compare or contrast classic writings with more modern ones
  • requiring papers that integrate a class discussion or debate with the readings
  • requiring students to use a local or current event or issue as the context or example of the theme or issue

7. Emphasize and evaluate process skills.

For example, you might require students to construct an annotated bibliography, an outline of their argument (and counter-argument) with sources of support, early drafts, etc. Creative writing assignments and personal essays are also readily available, with websites devoted to such topics as:

For these kinds of writing assignments one potential strategy is to have students generate their topic, create an outline, or write a rough draft in class, and require them to develop and revise those ideas for their final paper.

8. Obtain an initial writing sample from your students and keep it as a model of their style and quality of writing.

Detecting Internet-based Plagiarism

There are low-tech and high tech ways to help detect Internet-based plagiarism.

  1. Glancing through a student's paper for any of the following dead-give-a-ways is a fast, low-tech method.
  2. Using web-based services that conduct large-scale searches of the Internet are fast, high-tech methods.

These services compare student papers to materials available on the Internet and provide information on the likelihood that the paper has been plagiarized. One of the most popular services is Turnitin.

Turnitin (plagiarism prevention system)

This commercial site has a huge database of student papers that it searches against student work that you or your student submits.

Features include:

  • Color-coded similarity index, indicating the percent of overlap between the student's paper and items in their database (including other papers in your class.)
  • Links to the sites where the similar papers are found
  • Generation of an "Originality Report" highlighting passages that are similar or identical to material in its database.
    • Papers that are altered superficially (i.e., changing adjectives, verbs, etc) will still result in a very high similarity rating. Students can cut-and-paste their assignments into the course that you create or you can select suspicious papers to cut-and-paste in yourself.
    • Peer Review. For any paper assignment you can then create another assessment activity by having students review the papers of their peers. You can automatically assign any number of papers to each student (either randomly assigned or the students can choose or a combination of both), and provide them with a set of questions or rubrics to use in their review. These can be questions that you design yourself or you can use questions available in the site library. After all the reviews have been submitted, you can give students access to all the reviews, enabling them to compare their analysis of the work with other students'reviews and your review as well. You can also allow them to see the grade that you assigned the paper. This can potentially provide them with valuable information about how to critique a paper, how to evaluate their own work, and how you approach the task, thus providing them with a model of an expert's critique process.
    • Carnegie Mellon will be purchasing a limited subscription to this service to evaluate its usability, reliability, and value-added to faculty. Once the pilot study is completed a report on the findings and decisions on future usage will be made available.