Cheating off the Web

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I think that we can all try to prevent students from taking papers and ideas off the Web by not posting substantive material on our academic subjects to start with. I think there is far, far too much on the Web that does not need to be -- and that enables and encourages students to simply print out what they need for their assignments, and without citing it.

Too many professors out there encourage cheating by posting summaries of author's books and explanations of abstract ideas, etc. This is especially true in my area, philosophy. I have caught several students turning in work verbatim off a Web site. They are not even sorry about it. I don't have the time to thoroughly check every single piece of work, and it is very difficult to structure my assignments, so as to remove the chance of cheating,

This sounds like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Shall we also ban book reviews and close libraries because students might copy from them?

Granted, having things online makes it easier to cheat -- but that's addressing the symptom, not the disease. I'd rather have regular discussions with my students about the ethics of plagiarism and run the risk that some of them will cheat anyway, than stifle the free exchange of knowledge simply because some people will take advantage of it.

I actually did something quite different to combat this. I took almost all the undergraduate homework assignments and turned them into "in-class" assignments. Even short papers and essays. It is beginning students who are most likely to crib off the Web, since the more sophisticated and advanced the class, the less likely they are to find material on a topic on the internet.

I tell students that once a month (or on whatever schedule I chose) they are to bring all their notes, readings, texts, etc. to class and do an open-source writing assignment. Even practical exercises I once sent home to be done individually, I now have three or four undergraduates work on together in class and present their results. This also breaks up the lecture route and is a capstone to each "unit." The students, since they can't spend the whole hour or hour and a half looking for things in books or notes, but must write, are told/warned to prepare by having read and understood all their material. Since we do it several times a semester, they learn the pitfalls of not preparing during the first one, which I weigh more lightly since people must often adjust.

This has really worked, and I've noticed that by being forced to prepare for these open writing projects, the undergrads know the material much better by the end of the term. I also have done this in graduate seminars where we usually have three-hour blocks, and it works really well. Maybe three times a semester I give students a set of questions to think about while writing that absolutely require synthesis to answer, then let them use all the articles they want (and have already discussed in class) to answer them.

Be more net savvy ...:
Try an online plagiarism service like Make it mandatory that students submit work via Word or another word-processing program. Students send their file directly to the service, and then you go online to review their work with a report automatically generated by the service (color coded) that lists what has been lifted verbatim. These services are now also checking many more sources than just those on the Web.  

Then include in your plagiarism policy at the beginning of the semester that you will be using such a service; it will cut down on this practice right away. (These sites are not free, but perhaps your department will open an account). Plagiarism has gone to a whole 'nother level with the advent of the Web, and we need to change our ways of evaluating and discussing academic honesty in light of it.

shall remain nameless:
Dear Artagnan:  

    I disagree with you, and agree with Rana that we should not sacrifice the potential of the Web for true research in the interests of discouraging cheating. After all, many are now publishing on the Web, or in more restricted digital forums that require a password. For those of us whose research requires certain kinds of documentation, or travel, Web-posting is a boon.  

    That said, Tippi's methods sound great.  But the other key component here is that faculty members, and administrators have to punish cheating. I have seen many instances in which faculty members who caught those cheating (from the Internet, or in the older style of cut-and-pasted or purchased papers) were not supported by their chairs or administrators in confronting cheating, even if the college had a clear statement on academic honesty, and sanctions for breaking it. Some of these faculty members lost their jobs, others nearly did. Students are now using their clout with advisers and ombudspersons to complain about being penalized for cheating. So unfortunately, it seems that some faculty members encourage the cheating process out of fear of their students.


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