A new internet site that checks material for originality is catching term paper cheaters in a web of deceit. The site, Plagiarism.org, checks material against millions of pages online, identifying pseudo-scholars with the click of a mouse.

“It’s a very effective way of searching the more than 800 million documents out on the internet,” said John Barrie, the University of California, Berkeley, doctoral candidate who came up with the idea.

Barrie’s entry into the field of cybercheating began as a teaching assistant when he decided to give his students the real-world experience of peer review by having them post their work online for classmates to assess.

The project was a striking success. But soon came disturbing rumors that the papers involved were getting a second life, appearing in other classes under assumed names.

Enlisting the help of eight colleagues, Barrie began working on a way to catch the copycats. Last spring, the system got a test run on the papers of 300 students in a Berkeley neurobiology class.

Interestingly, although the students had been warned that their papers would be checked for originality, 45 (15 percent) turned in papers that were less than original.

“They either thought we didn’t have the technology to catch them or they had been getting away with it for such a long time that whatever we did wasn’t going to change that,” Barrie said.

Berkeley has contracted to use the service this spring. It is also being tested at a number of other schools, and negotiations are under way for a pilot program in Britain, Barrie said.

Teachers or professors who sign up for the service individually pay $20 for a class of 30, 50 cents for each additional paper. The charge is $1 per paper for campus-wide agreements.

Plagiarism.org works by registering the class and having students turn in papers electronically. Papers are checked against web material using the top 20 search engines and are also compared to a database of other manuscripts, including term papers from every school or university that licenses the service.

The program highlights phrases of eight words or more that match material in the databases.

Students had mixed reactions to the service. They liked the idea of weeding out cheaters, but were worried about being judged by a computer.

“Sometimes students forget to cite (references) and that’s kind of an honest mistake,” said Jennifer Shen, a senior studying political science at Berkeley who serves as student advocate for campus government. “I would say that the professors are welcome to use it so long as they don’t just go on the report, but they actually look at the reasons behind it.”

Barrie said the system makes it “crystal clear that no computer, not us, not any technology will ever tell you if someone has plagiarized material. An instructor or department chairman … has to make that determination.” He also suggested that instructors forgive the first instance of plagiarism and not begin disciplinary action.

Shen said she’d like to see some sort of agreement in which students would have a chance to vet their papers first to catch things like forgotten footnotes.

Berkeley graduate student Leslie Woodhouse said she, too, would want to know “how the program is set up—and is there a way to account for honest mistakes?”

Cheating, though, is certainly a problem, she said, noting that one undergraduate class had to eliminate a homework drop-off box because people were stealing the completed assignments out of the box and copying them.

Instructors say the point-and-click world of the internet has put cheating into overdrive. In addition to scores of reference works, online term papers are offered at sites such as Cheater.com.

“It used to be if you wanted to use somebody else’s paper, you had to go to the library, get a hold of the book, check out the book, and type the paper,” said Jeanne Wilson, president of the Center for Academic Integrity. “(Now) you can go on the internet … you just cut and paste directly from the web and then turn out a beautiful paper that you had nothing to do with.”


University of California, Berkeley

Center for Academic Integrity