Cheat sheets

Is it real or is it from a paper mill? helps professors — and now high school teachers — spot plagiarism. The Washington Post reports:

The software compares a student’s essay to all the text on the publicly available Internet, a vast library of books and academic journals and the 10 million essays already turned in to the service. Matching text shows up underlined, and the teacher can link to the writing it mirrors.

“If a student is caught cheating, there is this unambiguous evidence,” said John Barrie, the founder of Oakland, Calif.-based “Instead of asking a student how they came to write a paper so patently beyond their intellectual ability, I could ask, ‘Can you explain why 87 percent of this paper is underlined by this program?’ ”

Students told the Post that copying words is wrong but rewriting someone else’s ideas is OK. And the software won’t spot paraphrasing.

At least, students seem to be honest about cheating: 74 percent admitted they’d cheated in some way in 2002 in one survey, up from 61 percent 10 years earlier.

“There’s this mysterious perception about the Internet. . . . No one has created it — it’s just out there for you to take,” said Diane Waryold, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University.

Honor codes run into the new morality.

. . . teachers across the country are up against some students who question the concept of honor itself, who view cheating as a victimless offense (much the same way they see downloading music), who say it doesn’t feel like cheating if the assignment is stupid, who justify wrongdoing by citing their stress and who are scared about nothing other than getting caught.

In 30 percent of papers submitted to, “more than one-quarter of the text was copied verbatim.”

Via Cranky Professor. Here’s Mental Multivitamin’s take on the issue.

Cheating is prevalent among the best high school students, says this New York Times story. Driven to get into elite colleges, more students are cutting ethical corners. The story quotes Donald McCabe, a Rutgers University professor, whose survey found 75 percent of high school students had “cheated at least once on a test, up from 50 percent in 1993 and 25 percent in 1963.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that students who come from privileged backgrounds develop a certain entitlement mentality,” Mr. McCabe said. “Also they are under much greater pressure from their parents on the college admissions issue.”

What’s changed is parenting, says another researcher. When a student is caught cheating, parents threaten to sue the school.

About Joanne


  1. I’ve caught lots of students cheating. No parent has ever threatened to sue me or the school. Usually they’re pretty embarassed.

  2. I wrote about this earlier topic earlier this month.

    Here’s another angle to consider:

    once submitted to the site, the students’ papers remain stored on the web as a further deterent against plagiarism, which, as one source in the article notes, “[A]nd that’s a big worry I think.”

    Really? A worry? Which part? The part about our centers for higher learning being so rife with academic misconduct and dishonesty that professors are compelled to check every student’s work for theft? Or the part where student-writers must essentially surrender their property to the Web?

    Talk about your double-edged sword, huh? Academic integrity has disintegrated to the point where professors (who are not, it seems, above a little “sloppy scholarship” themselves; consider the recent case of Naval Academy history professor Brian VanDeMark) patronize a business that has reduced published work to “code,” against which student papers can be compared to identify what amounts to theft of another writer’s work.

    And the other edge? Well, whether you’re a student who thinks a little borrowing from here and there (especially if “here” is an obscure academic journal and “there” is a frat brother’s cousin’s sister’s paper on the same topic) is A-okay or a student who triple-checks sources and attributions, once your papers are submitted to the California website,, they (the papers) become a permanent part of the Web’s landscape.

    A conundrum, no?

    The rest of my thoughts on this topic (as well as the links) can be found at

  3. On Rita C’s comment. Whether a parent sues the school (or takes some similar radical action)depends not only on the character of the parent but on the consequence of the student’s action. If the student’s having been caught is going to result in a failure to graduate with his class, or a bad mark on her record, then some parents may very well, and some do, go to extreme measures. I’ve noticed this notion out there that “standing up for your kid” means defending him even when he is wrong. The idea of learning a valuable moral lesson gets eclipsed by the hunger for “success.”

  4. I’ve had several instances of student cheating. In only one case did the mother defend her child.

    “I helped him,” she said, after her son’d handed me some graduate student’s downloaded term paper. With the web address still on it.

    My usual strategy with any suspect paper is to quietly pull the student aside and ask what he or she meant in paragraph two when they wrote (insert obviously plagiarized sentence here). They almost always confess right there.

  5. Urban: Oh, believe me, some of these kids have failed my class because they chose to plagiarize a major paper… and failing my class means either not graduating on time or doubling up on English courses. Not to mention the “F” on the report card.

    Really, I don’t see what grounds the law suit would rest on. It’s not like these are clever children — they do things like copy and paste SparkNotes.

  6. I don’t know if you noticed what a commenter pointed out on my blog — at the bottom of the Washington Post story there are links to paper mills!

  7. I know that some threaten. It happened to me. When I was a teaching assistant, I found 4 final exams which had the same incorrect answer, and the 4 students were next to/behind each other. One of the parents threatened to sue, and the school wasn’t willing to support me.

    Rather unfortunate.

  8. We had take-home tests in Differential Equations. Once the teacher, who was an invariably friendly, smiling man, came in looking very cloudy and told us that some students’ papers looked too similar. Those students were getting zeroes, and if it happened again there would be no more take-homes. It did’t happen again. But cheating/not cheating in math is very cut-and-dried.

    I wonder how many students have it explained to them in so many words, that they are expected to think original thoughts and come up with original conclusions, and their papers are supposed to reflect that. Not that no one has ever thought those things before (not possible, probably), but that their papers should not reflect anyone else’s work. Kids may honestly not understand that the point is not to produce a paper for the teacher to read, but to do the reading, researching, and thinking that enable them to produce a paper. If that’s the case, they won’t understand why paraphrasing someone else’s work isn’t acceptable – the words aren’t the same, after all, so what’s the big deal?

  9. Laura wrote: “I wonder how many students have it explained to them in so many words, that they are expected to think original thoughts and come up with original conclusions, and their papers are supposed to reflect that.”

    That was never stated to me in high school, from what I remember. It was probably said at some point in college, but I don’t remember when. But I can honestly say that I don’t remember any of my teachers/professors encouraging original thought until I got into my upper division major classes in History, with one exception. I had a Psych prof for Theories of Personality who devoted a whole page in his syallabus about how to evaluate theories. Nobody else ever bothered to try to spell it out so clearly. I saved the page and used it later. But that’s something I should have learned in high school.

  10. Richard Brandshaft says:

    The not-quite-joke in my distant youth was, “If you copy from one source, it’s plagiarism. If you copy form more than one source, it’s research.”

    If we say taking a bit here, a bit there, and rephrasing it is plagiarism, aren’t we expecting too much of students? (Of course, the writer should be required to state sources.) How many teenagers have several worthwhile original insights per semester? I can’t remember having any in my teens. (Well, one, maybe, which I didn’t recognize until decades later.)

  11. PJ/Maryland says:

    I think MFS is reading too much into the Turnitin people’s system. As far as I can tell, they keep copies of submitted student work for future comparisons, but the papers are not generally available (which is what I take “a permanent part of the Web’s landscape” to mean). (It occurs to me that running a paper mill in conjunction with Turnitin might be wildly profitable [for a while], but I don’t think that’s happening here.)

    Laura and Sue bring up an important point, which makes me wonder what exactly teachers expect students to produce. I think we can agree that there are no original thoughts about Fahrenheit 451 left (“original” in the sense of never being thought by someone else).

    I remember a paper I did in high school about the Depression. I read four or five books and in my 4 or 5 page paper suggested that there was a shortage of money which led to the Depression. (I knew nothing about economics at the time.) My paper came back with some lower-than-expected grade (I think a C), and lots of notes from the teacher. I recall he thought I used far too many commas, and also pointed out that Milton Friedman had the same idea that I did. Looking back, I realize he was obliquely accusing me of (a) reading Friedman, (b) copying his idea, and (c) cleverly leaving him out of my bibliography. In fact, I hadn’t read Friedman (so, great minds do think alike!), and found the thought that I would miss out on padding my biblio a bit bizarre. I pointed out that the school library didn’t have Friedman’s book (probably his Monetary History, which even now is $40 in paperback), and he grudgingly bumped my grade up to something like a B+. (My dad was an architect, so we had expensive books on Parisian architecture and Florentine art and German building techniques, but very few economic texts lying around home…)

    So, high school teachers out there, what do you expect from a research paper? Apart from a student putting in time thinking about the subject, and assembling a bibliography that does not include the Encyclopedia Britannica. (In fact, I never really understood that last, except that it was declasse.)

  12. Sue: evaluating theories is not something you should have learned in high school. In high school you learn what the theories might be.

    I love getting some original thought (which I define at the high school level as being thinking originating with the student — even if it is not very original in the broader sense) in an essay or research paper, but I don’t expect it from all students in all papers. I expect the student to do some research and cite that research accurately. What I’m looking for is the ability to take information from multiple sources and present a synthesis to me in a coherent way and so that it supports whatever the student’s thesis may be. I see that as The Basic Skill I’m trying to teach. I figure that prepares them for college, when their brains are better able to deal with abstraction and they’ve acquired a broader knowledge base to do some thinking with.

    This sounds modest, but believe me, it is not an easy skill for most 15-16-year-olds to develop.

  13. You write: “At least, students seem to be honest about cheating: 74 percent admitted they’d cheated in some way in 2002 in one survey, up from 61 percent 10 years earlier. ”

    Or the students are honest about being honest about cheating and the numbers have risen

  14. Walter E. Wallis says:

    I wonder how many graduate themes would pass muster.

  15. In my English Lit class in college, we had to read “The Mayor of Casterbridge” (WHY????) and write an essay on it. We didn’t know what the essay was to be until we showed up with our copies of M of C and our blue books. We had three or four possible topics to choose from and we had to write them then and there. It would have been very difficult to plagiarize that. I think I compared L- something to Elizabeth-Jane. Lucette? Lucinda? It sure made an impression on me.
    : )

  16. “I think we can agree that there are no original thoughts about Fahrenheit 451 left (“original” in the sense of never being thought by someone else).”

    And that is the problem with this system: it has to generate a HUGE number of false positives, especially if any example labelled “cheating” is then fed back into the database, there to be turned into further evidence. What happens if I write an essay on “Romeo and Juliet” and post it on my webpage? Does that become part of the engine? How fast? Would it be possible to be convicted of cheating if I recycled my own work? The example in the article suggests yes.

    I suspect the reason that there haven’t been many lawsuits is that lots of teachers don’t bother to check, and the idea that this service is a “zero tolerance” type site: the impersonal machine is doing the evaluating, and the teacher’s judgement isn’t in question.

  17. I also blogged this the other day and it generated various strong opinions. My views are split on because as a writer myself, I don’t like how they are exploiting the student’s ‘intellectual property’ but on the other hand my college NEEDS this technology because our students are plagiarising left and right in courses that aren’t able to teach the whole writing process step by step. I’m leaning toward the position that is a good thing because student cheaters have plenty of tools at their disposal and the culture-at-large seems to support ends-over-means thinking and free sampling, whereas teachers have virtually nothing to assist them in protecting the academic research ethics. It’s no panacea, but if students know they might get caught cheating, they might try other methods to succeed in class, like actually learning and writing and thinking on their own.

  18. Who is the owner of the intellectual property rights once the ‘paper’ is input to system????

  19. Someone commented on the intellectual property issue over at my blog, but before I could check on it myself he/she had run to find out. Here’s what my commenter left the second time:

    “Because the “primary objective of copyright is not to reward the labor of authors but ‘[to] promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts” … the minimal use of a student’s work to ferret out plagiarism in others works, without making the work itself available to the public, is a fair use that does not infringe any copyright which may be present in the archived work.”

    That’s their answer to the question. More information here:

  20. hmmmmm…nice non-answer

  21. I wrote about this from the perspective of my own experience last month. Here’s the link. Not easy to deal with.

  22. Institutions seeking to preserve academic integrity have been left with few options; education, prevention and detection. Detection services though, are limited to only those private and journal databases on the “deep” web they may have access to, and the public web. Except the public web is less then 1% the size of the of the deep web, which is almost 450 times larger. And even if you do detect suspected plagiarism, how do you determine the intent of the plagiarist, intentional or not?

    PowerResearcher, a powerful Research Process Automation tool, is a desktop application that not only improves the speed and quality of research, making writing, citing, bibliography, publishing and sharing easier, it integrates it all into one single interface. It prevents plagiarism by recording, date and time stamping URLs and sources whenever information is copied or downloaded from the Internet. It requires building of bibliographies and citations while tracking the entire process, including the writing, protecting the innocent researcher against inadvertent plagiarism. The intentional plagiarist is easily identified by the effort to which they had to go to override the PowerResearcher tracking features.

    PowerResearcher, used in conjunction with a detection service, provides the most comprehensive plagiarism prevention possible, constituting a sophisticated and timely prevention and deterrence.

    And with institutions now being threatened with lawsuits by students accused or caught, focus should be on plagiarism prevention, using a tool like PowerResearcher that clearly identifies the intent of the plagiarist.

  23. Im in grade 9 at a school in Cmabridge Ontario, alot of you are talking about using originality. At 14 we do not exactly have that skill yet…..although alot of us don’t plagarise we do use SparkNotes and Cliffs Notes to help us with alot English assignments. I cam across this page looking for Cheat Notes to study for my exam. Everyone can say that they have plagarised before, I can. But if we take information from one source we get in trouble for plagarism but if we take information from a variety of sources even if its all the same the nits research. Maybe teachers should explain what is and what isnt plagarism abit more.