After seeing a jump in reported cheating last year, the College Council has begun to closely consider the state of cheating and plagiarism at Amherst. Sixteen cases were reported last year, compared to only three in 1998. Cheating has been around for a long time, but Web plagiarism has recently become a concern.
While web methods of plagiarism are easily available, paper quality can be low, and professors have recourse to several means of detection.
Entering “term papers” into the Yahoo search engine turns up more than 25 sites advertising essays for sale, and numerous others featuring databases with thousands of free essays available for students to download. Students can also order custom-written essays tailored to a specific topic for $10-15 per page, although some sites charge more.
One website, The Evil House of Cheat, claims to have more than 9500 essays and attract more than 2000 visitors each day. In order to gain access to works, visitors must pay $10 per year and donate one of their own essays to the database. Some similar sites do not charge any money for database access, instead requesting that users donate a paper.
While the title “The Evil House of Cheat” clearly acknowledges the possibility that students will hand in papers found on the web site as their own, other sites warn of the consequences of such behavior. Amazing Papers gives specific instructions for citing its custom-written papers as sources.
“It is against university codes to use any part of someone else’s written work without properly citing it,” warns Amazing Papers. “We will not sell any academic papers to anyone suggesting that their intention is to hand in the paper as purchased without proper citation.”
But the site also advertises that its services can help students achieve good grades. “We know college and writing term papers can be a challenge … Success cannot be achieved alone, it requires a team effort.”
Although 123 Papers has a similar disclaimer, other aspects of the site more directly encourage students to cheat. The site promises to write papers within eight hours and asks potential customers, “Why waste your time and money on outdated, off-subject, ‘cut&paste’ jobs, when you can order top quality custom-written term papers?”
The site also attempts to assuage the fears of nervous customers, assuring them that it always cites its own sources: “123 Papers never plagiarizes. Many other companies, that provide research material in the form of papers, recycle pre-written copies. This is plagiarism.”
But could Amherst students really achieve high grades by turning in Internet essays? Professor of Religion Robert Doran said he discourages students from using Internet papers as sources because they are not reliable. “Most of the papers I’ve seen on the web are horrible,” he said.
In an effort to assess the quality of essays from the Web, The Student took three free papers to be evaluated at the Writing Center.
The papers-“The Economic Growth of Asia,” “The Act of Reading in Madame Bovary & Anna Karenina” and “The Effect of Race on Sentencing in Capital Punishment Cases”-were selected for sensible structure and good source citation.
After being told that the papers she had critiqued on economic development and capital punishment were actually plagiarized from the Internet, Writing Fellow Sarah Johnson ’00 remarked that she had thought something was strange about the economics essay but had brushed off her feeling because she did not think that the supposed author would plagiarize.
“Why I would think it was more in the realm of plagiarism is because it was just fact after fact after fact,” she said. “But I just thought you were too close to the source. I thought there was something off about it-but I knew you.”
Senior Lecturer in English Helen von Schmidt said that professors are susceptible to similar bias resulting from their relationships with particular students, making it difficult for them to turn in students for suspected plagiarism. “It was very painful when I turned in a student for cheating because I knew him from several classes,” she said. The cheating student who had copied was placed on academic probation, and the student whose essay was plagiarized failed the class.
Johnson said that she did not see any obvious distinction between the plagiarized paper and the type of work she might see from Amherst students. “It’s tough because the writing was okay. It was pretty flat, not distinctive, which makes it easy to be passed off as several people’s writings,” she commented. “There are definitely some papers I’ve seen that have this kind of quality and this pattern of looking hastily written.”
Another writing tutor commented on the mediocre quality of the plagiarized essay he saw. “I couldn’t tell that it was off the Web,” said peer writing tutor Jon Schneider ’03, after reading the essay on Madame Bovary and being told its origin. He added, however, that “I think it wouldn’t necessarily get the best grade unless you made some adjustments.”
Johnson said that the major problem with the plagiarized papers was that they were more descriptive than analytical, and she explained that Amherst professors usually demand that papers present an argument.
At First Cite
As part of an attempt to combat web plagiarism, administrators may take more steps to teach freshmen how to cite properly. According to professors and administrators, many students have different perceptions of when they should cite sources.
“Some professors don’t care about citing as much as others, and students have to vary [how much they cite] according to the class,” Johnson said of papers she has seen.
“The question is, how much is deliberate and how much is lack of knowledge? It’s clear that it’s something of both,” said Dean of Students Ben Lieber.
“Like Napster, some people may feel that anything they find online is free to use as they wish,” said Professor of Chemistry David Padowitz. “It was proposed that the College distribute a reference on online research, perhaps during first-year seminars.”
Several professors said that they have not encountered deliberate instances of cheating, but that some students have accidentally plagiarized because they did not cite sources.
Professor of English Richard Cody said that during his 30 years of teaching, he has never considered cheating a problem in the English department, although two or three students have not attributed their ideas to the proper sources. “In all cases, it really wasn’t a matter of consciously trying to deceive anybody,” he explained.
But von Schmidt said she has suspected students of plagiarizing many times but only reported one incident to the administration when she had definite proof that the student had copied a classmate’s essay.
Von Schmidt said these punishments were appropriate but that some other incidents of alleged cheating in recent years have not been properly investigated. She said the College needs to have a more specific policy on cheating that specifies punishments for different offenses. Right now, the school’s policy leaves discretion to the individual professor.
“A set policy would take teachers off the hook in deciding what to do,” von Schmidt explained.
But faculty ultimately decide what they consider plagiarism, where the Internet is involved. Assistant Professor of History Kim Brandt said she would accept citations from research papers ordered from the Internet.
“I find the idea of these websites distasteful,” she said, “but it seems difficult to draw a distinction between information you get from one of these websites and from what you read in a magazine or a thesis another student has written.”
Last fall, Visiting Professor of German Susan Cocalis noticed significant similarities among papers submitted by 10 students in her class, German 49: “Witches: Myth and Historical Reality.” Cocalis, who said the students had downloaded portions of their papers from the Internet, never filed an official complaint. The students got the opportunity to rewrite their papers, according to students in the class.
One student in the “Witches” class, James Garvey ’02, echoed Cody’s concerns about the distinction between accidental plagiarism and deliberate cheating, in an article last year. “It wasn’t any real plagiarism, just a question of what needed to be cited,” Garvey told The Student at the time.
“That’s the one documented instance [of copying from a website],” said Lieber, “which is not to say that it might not be happening more frequently. My counterparts at other schools are reporting problems with this.”
President Tom Gerety echoed this concern. “From our faculty, I have not heard of significant instances of Web plagiarism,” he said. “But my hunch is that there has been a fair amount [undetected].”
Professors said there are some ways to reduce chances for students to plagiarize in their classes.
“I think a lot of it depends on how you frame essay questions,” explained Brandt. “If you make questions specific and call on
students to be creative and interpretive, there’s less opportunity for students to
Doran also said he assigns specific questions that require students to “look closely at language” in course readings that are unlikely to be examined in detail in Internet essays.
Several other professors said that in small classes, they can recognize students’ writing styles, so any deviation from their usual writing quality can indicate possible cheating.
Some entrepreneurs are fighting fire with fire by taking to the Internet in order to combat plagiarism. At Turnitin.com, associated with plagiarism.org, professors can pay $20 to have up to 30 papers checked for plagiarism, and 50 cents for each additional paper.
A free trial on Turnitin.com accurately analyzed two papers submitted by The Student. One paper, an original student essay, was reported as containing zero to 25 percent of plagiarized material. The other paper was correctly identified as being copied from a website, and turnitin.com listed three websites from which certain paragraphs were copied.
Turnitin.com is a response to internet plagiarism. John Barrie founded turnitin.com after he noticed the problem as a teaching assistant at the University of California at Berkeley. The site analyzes papers against a database of essays taken from many universities and websites to check for probable plagiarism.
Some software programs also claim to be able to catch plagiarized student papers. The Glatt Plagiarism Screening Program, which sells for $300, uses the suspect essay to construct a test requiring students to demonstrate familiarity with the paper they turned in for class.
The College Council has discussed using services like Turnitin.com. “If particular faculty members asked us to arrange access, I’m pretty certain we would be willing to do so,” said Lieber, adding that the College Council was considering the question of whether the College should actively offer the site to professors.
Padowitz said that while the Council was considering the trial use of an online service, “It was unanimously agreed that the idea of screening or maintaining a database of all papers in any course would not be in keeping with Amherst ideals.”
But Von Schmidt said these types of sites could be very helpful in her classes. “I’ve had papers I’m virtually sure are not the work of the
student … but it’s hard to penalize someone without actual proof,” she said.