Technology fights plagiarism

By Laura Grandt

Plagiarism. That taboo of academia may be aided by technology but the fight against it also has technological allies.

There are software programs available to help instructors catch those who lift copy from other sources and try to pass them off as their own. And many instructors simply rely on the Google Web site to detect fraudulent authors.

“It’s a fairly easy way to track something fast, and software that does that kind of tracking is expensive and we can’t afford to have that software,” said Doris Macdonald, associate professor and director of Undergraduate Studies in the English Department.

Macdonald said she has caught two students, an undergraduate student and a graduate student, by using Google.

“I type a sentence that sounds either like it should be a quote, or it sounds perhaps out of context with the rest of the paper, of a style that’s different and I’ll do a Google search to see if it shows up in a document elsewhere.”

Some of the other programs require only one or two words.

Larry Bolles, Director of the University Judicial Office, said there are numerous resources instructors use to catch cheaters. Some of these resources are free, others are not.

NIU does not subscribe to any of these services, but there are faculty members that subscribe and pay themselves, Bolles said.

While there are different ways to catch a cheater, reasons for cheating don’t often differ. A lot of students cheat for the convenience factor.

“It isn’t because a student is dumb, or slow, or can’t do the work. Most of the time when a student cheats, it’s to take a shortcut,” Bolles said. “They’re too lazy, they didn’t study that night; they went to a party instead. They made choices between doing something for their fraternity, their sorority, their social group, their boyfriend, their girlfriend. They made choices when they needed to study, and so then they cheated to try to cover that.”

Most of those students who do cheat are not failing the classes they cheat in, Bolles said. Most are passing the class and cheat to maintain their grade. He said most students at NIU are honest and “do their own work,” though.

Macdonald said she encourages her faculty to let her know when students cheat in their classes. As a result of this, she said she gets the sense that plagiarism has increased.

Bolles echoes this sentiment.

He said he has noticed an increase in cheating in the areas of computer programs and team assignments. Students cheating on computer programming assignments may be caught when an instructor makes minor changes to an assignment from one year to the next. Bolles said students may not check the assignment they are turning in to make sure the directions have been followed.