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Video: Shining a Spotlight on Cheating


Cheating by students. It’s the problem everybody has but nobody wants to talk about.

Now educators, researchers, and education-technology companies working on academic-integrity issues in higher education are breaking open the conversation with Plagiarism Education Week, a virtual conference that runs through Friday. Spearheaded by turnitin, a commercial web platform that helps instructors to check for plagiarism, the event is meant to give participants a forum for frank discussion about the causes and consequences of cheating.

“Right now I feel like plagiarism is the way that drug and alcohol addiction used to be before Betty Ford and other people like that came out,” says Teresa A. Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity, a sponsor of the event. “Everybody knows they have cheating problem, but they are so embarrassed about it, they don’t want to discuss it openly.”

In addition to Ms. Fishman, those leading sessions at the conference include Dave Tomar, who caused a sensation when he detailed—first anonymously in The Chronicle and later under his own name in a book—how he had spent a decade helping students cheat by ghostwriting academic assignments for pay.

Instructors and others in higher education now have more tools at their disposal to deal with plagiarism. In addition to turnitin, there are companies—such as Plagium—whose websites allow users to check the originality of written work as well as to locate “rogue copies of websites and pirated content reused for commercial or criminal gain,” according to Benjamin Epstein, chief executive of Plagium’s parent company, Septet Systems Inc.

Still, it is unclear whether any of the new technological tools are making a dent in the problem. The International Center for Academic Integrity, located at Clemson University, has been surveying college students about cheating for 20 years. Sixty-two percent of undergraduates and 40 percent of graduate students said they had cheated on a written assignment during the prior year, according to aggregate data gathered from 17,000 graduate students and 71,300 undergraduates from 2002 to 2011.

“Cheating is definitely not going away,” says Jonathan Bailey, a copyright and plagiarism expert who runs the website Plagiarism Today, another sponsor of this week’s event. “Just like improved forensics and DNA evidence hasn’t completely stopped crime, better plagiarism detection won’t stop plagiarism. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t use the technology to deter and handle any plagiarism that does take place.”

Mr. Bailey and others say that technology-based tools do have their place in a broader approach to deter cheating.

“There are ways,” he says, “to reduce the amount of plagiarism, including providing robust education on what is plagiarism and how to avoid it, and incorporating plagiarism-detection tools in the teaching process rather than just using it as a tool to catch cheaters.”

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