Monday, March 24, 2014


Online Plagiarism

Twitter had an “I’m old enough to remember…” meme this week that made me laugh.  “I’m old enough to remember when 2 was a number, not an abbreviation.”  “I’m old enough to remember when we waited until 11 p.m. to make long distance calls.”  “I’m old enough to remember when we mailed checks to pay bills.”  

And I’m old enough to remember when plagiarism took actual effort.

Before web browsing combined with copy and paste to make plagiarism seamless, a student who wanted to copy a paper from another source had to actually put some work into it.  In my earliest teaching days, he had to find a paper source, select a relevant-seeming passage, and actually retype the entire thing.  (In practice, many of them chose the “have my girlfriend write it for me” approach, which is an even older method.)  It was just as dishonest, but at least it took some legwork.  Judging by the quality of much of what I read, most of them just wrote it themselves.  

Exams were a different issue.  I recall hearing in my t.a. days to watch out for the old “write the answers on the inside of the water bottle label” trick.  I admit admiring the ingenuity of whomever first came up with it.  We’d hear about baseball cap bills, or variations on morse code, or suspiciously timed trips to the bathroom.  I prided myself on deploying clever little anti-cheating methods publicly, both to deter the opportunists and to reassure the good students that they weren’t wasting their efforts.  (My favorite, for in-class blue book essays (!), was to have the students draw a triangle or square somewhere on the first page, and not to write anything in it.  It defeated pre-written answers.)  

Then the web took off, and the game changed.  Suddenly, appropriating content became easy and quick.  Google, select, copy, paste.  Done and done.  And with online courses, the opportunities for cheating on exams mushroomed.  You no longer need to be a criminal mastermind to pull it off.  Now that many students have multiple screens, even monitoring what’s on the screen with the test isn’t enough.  If you’re monitoring my laptop, you don’t know what I’m doing on my tablet or phone.  Multiple choice is easy with Google at the ready.

I’ve heard of more intrusive forms of surveillance, like biometrics or webcams, but I’ve got just enough Foucault in me to recoil at the prospect of panopticism as the answer.  Part of the appeal of online courses is the ability to do them in your bathrobe, looking like hell.  Recording video of that seems either cruel or creepy.  Yes, one could argue that in the era of the NSA, those horses are well out of the barn, but I still sense a difference.

In a way, the advent of online exams has highlighted the relative lightness with which we’ve long taken in-class identity.  In my teaching days, I don’t recall ever asking for or looking at a student’s ID.  If the same student showed up week after week, answering to “Brian,” then I assumed he was Brian.  He could have been Brian’s brother, Dave.  I wouldn’t have known.  

Some have argued that the way to combat online plagiarism and related offenses is to make assignments so idiosyncratic that they can’t possibly be plagiarized.  I guess that’s possible, sometimes, but it doesn’t work as well in, say, American Government or College Algebra as it might in English Comp.  It also makes assessment much harder, since coming up with a flurry of idiosyncratic assignments semester after semester that align with learning outcomes that don’t change for years is a tall order.  The workload implications alone are severe.

Technology helps in certain ways.  We use turnitin, which can be both a teaching tool and a way to catch certain kinds of cheating.  Savvy faculty know to Google particularly florid or improbable sentences.  And of course, abrupt shifts in voice or references to knowledge that students couldn’t possibly have are tip-offs.  (I once had a below-average student in a 101 class drop an arch reference to Larry Summers in a paper.  Um, no.)  

But even with these safeguards, it’s hard to escape the sense that cheating is becoming easier, and preventing it is becoming harder.  

Wise and worldly readers, short of going full-on panopticon on them, have you found reasonably elegant ways to combat online plagiarism or cheating?

I was never especially worried about cheating and find the Bryan Caplan arguments ( persuasive. Students are either primarily cheating themselves or what they're learning isn't that important. I wrote more at the bottom of this post.

That being said if I found obvious cheating I'd punish it, but in my view the real world is a much harsher judge than any instructor can be.
We have photo rosters that show their student ID photo, which helps a lot with learning names as well as identifying students at exam time. That only relies on whatever the college uses to confirm identity when they get the card made.

As you note, "lock down browsers" and other remote monitoring are a joke if you don't have a proctor verifying they have no other communication tools available. If they just log in, a parent or someone they hire could have the password and do the work for them.
I've mostly relied on savvy uses of Google with unusual sentences and the like. This has really depended on me having some idea of the student's speaking or writing style, so it doesn't scale or transfer well to others. The scenario has mostly been end-of-semester papers in engineering elective courses, or sometimes in lab reports.

My willingness to track down plagiarism suffered when I found a scientific description on the Nobel Prizes web site that had apparently been plagiarized from a textbook, without any citation. (I think other sentences in that work had had references to the literature.) Alas, I'll never know if the student was plagiarizing the Nobel site, the obscure and much older textbook (thanks, Google books), or some other site that copied from one or both of those places.
Jake Seliger's take is gold. If the material is genuinely important to what the student will be accomplishing, the motivations to cheat tack WAY down. The concerns I've had about the honesty of student's efforts have tacked up as the course that I teach is used as a random check of rigor (looking your way, phys ed majors required to take GenChem) as opposed to something that's necessary and going to turn up on board exams (for some funny reason, the serious pre-meds and pre-dents and pre-pharms never think about cheating in GenChem...but the pre-vets do...oh, look, you just take the GRE to get into vet school, no chemistry in the GRE...)

That's a very short-sighted view of "is what they're learning important?", but it gets the student's attention quick enough. And yes, the real world is a far harsher judge.

That said: my best defense against cheating has always been to get to know the students and to listen even a little bit to what their aspirations are. If you can get a half-decent relationship working with the student, and they get even a small amount of investment in why your goals are what they are for the class, you tend to get a decent environment.

I suppose that doesn't help if there's an identity swap at the very onset, but at a certain point, we have to make some assumptions that students are going to behave honestly.
It's been about 5 years since I've taught (as an adjunct), and I really have never found a good way to combat cheating/plagiarizing, nor have I found a good way to approach handling it. I think following the letter of zero tolerance policies by, for example, giving an F for the course and referring to the academic review board both the student who cuts-and pasts almost an entire a paper from google and the student who merely lifts a couple sentences from the assigned textbook is not particularly fair. Neither is it practical if followed consistently. In the end, I imagine Chuck Pearson's approach is the best.
I have the advantage of small class sizes, so YMMV, but I give assignments that require them to really put together their own thoughts. There is still room for plagiarism within there (mainly the background for each project), and I've caught some, but the majority of what they write is not something that they will be able to find in another citation (online or otherwise). They enjoy it because it's biology yet still creative, I enjoy it because they get to use their brains and synthesize.

@Chuck Pearson -- I really hope I never run into a vet who doesn't understand gen chem. I wish we in general did a better job at making our students understand how the sciences fit together and if you want to be good at biology (including veterinary science...) you really need to be able to integrate all of them. But that's a different rant that I won't start.
When I was an undergraduate at a SLAC back in the early 1960s, the school had an Honor Commission which handled academic honor code violations, including plagiarism. The Honor Commission was staffed entirely by students, and it handled all cases brought before it, either by faculty or by other students. The honor code at the school was not unlike the honor codes in place at the military academies—we do not lie, cheat, or steal, and we do not tolerate the presence among us of those who do. Under the code, students were required to report honor code violations when they saw them, and if a student failed to do so, they could be hauled before the Honor Commission just as if they had done the cheating themselves. The Honor Commission could decide the penalty to be imposed, up to and including expulsion from the school.

I believe that the system worked fairly well, but since the Honor Commission worked in secret, I really don’t know if due process was truly observed, and I don’t know if they really operated fairly and were not some sort of Star Chamber. About the only notices of the proceedings of the Honor Commission were terse notes in the college newspaper which reported the nature of the violation and the penalty meted out. In just about all the cases, the accused student was judged to be guilty. The penalty for plagiarism was usually a grade of failure in the plagiarized work.

But this was back in the 1960s, before the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Previously, plagiarism required a certain amount of effort—you had to go to the library, drag out the book, and write down the paragraph or paragraphs you wanted to crib. But now all it takes is a Google search and a couple of mouse clicks to copy just about anything you want into your paper. It is so easy to do this that a student could inadvertently forget to properly cite what they dragged off the Internet into their work.

I wonder how Turnitin works in the present environment. Would Turnitin flag as a potential plagiarism a single sentence that just by coincidence matches something found on the Web? I suppose that a wise teacher needs to carefully vet what Turnitin tells them, just so that they don’t falsely charge a student with plagiarism. You can’t trust a computer to make what are basically human decisions. On the other hand, could a clever plagiarist escape Turnitin’s scrutiny by paraphrasing what they copy, changing just a few words and doing some rearrangement, all without properly citing the work?

I teach in math and physics, where I don’t assign papers, so I have little experience in such matters.

Back in the day, if you wanted to catch plagiarism you had to actually do something more than Google a sentence. Technology has made it easier on both sides, so if we're more worried about it now than we used to be, I think it has to do with something other than technology. I'd point to differences in who is in higher education now compared to the past, and what it means that we trust them less, but you probably have already run your concerns about cheating through a sociology check. Right?

Your complaint that "the workload implications alone are severe" is realistic, given the system we have... but ultimately not totally different from the students complaining about the workload of their assignments leading to plagiarism.

Turnitin in particular struck me as deeply ethically hypocritical. It involves a private for-profit company making money off of my intellectual property, which I am required to give them to participate in a particular course. Why is "stealing" more ethical than "cheating"?

It's not that you should necessarily let blatant cheating stand, but we can't let the credentialing functions of higher ed outweigh the learning functions of higher ed to the extent that everything rests on whether the system is perfectly fair. Because the world isn't fair.
reasonably elegant ways to combat online plagiarism or cheating

Turnitin can be used as a teaching tool for those who honestly don't know what plagiarism is. We have students turn in their own paper and try for an originality score that exceeds a threshold. That helps them understand what is required.

I find that a final exam taken in a proctored test site tends to weed out those who cheated on the midterms as long as the final can tank their grade. And I'd rather give someone a C than an F - it allows them no opportunity to retake the course (at the places where I have taught). I also grade all the answers to a single test question at the same time and flag those students who turned in the same wrong answer or right answers that have identifying quirks. I then let the students in the class know that I've identified some patterns in the answers and that I'm tracking them. This seems to help discourage the worst offenders.
A number of years ago, I took computer science and math classes at a community college. Several of my professors allowed students to bring one index card, on which useful info could be written, into the test. I found the preparation of the card to be extremely useful. I had to decide what were the most important formulae or lists to include. I usually went through several iterations of index cards. This also meant that professors had to ask questions that required some thinking, rather than mere regurgitation. I do not believe that any of my fellow students cheated on the test. Whatever ground they would have gained by cheating was obviated by the index card.
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