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Cheat-detection software

Plagiarise. Let no one else's work evade your eyes
Mar 14th 2002
The Economist print edition

A window of opportunity for intellectual cheats is closing fast

EVER since Al Gore invented it, the Internet has been a paradise for those with a creative attitude to facts. Students, for example, commission and sell essays with such ease there that online “paper mills” devoted to this trade are one of the few dotcom business models still thriving. With a few clicks of a mouse, a student can outsource any academic chore to “research” sites such as Gradesaver.com or the Evil House of Cheat.

One market opportunity, however, frequently creates another. The past few months have seen a rapid rise in interest in software designed to catch the cheats. The subscriber base of Turnitin, a leading anti-plagiarism software house based in Oakland, California, has risen by 25% since the beginning of the year. Around 150,000 students in America alone are under its beady electronic eye. And in Britain, the Joint Information Systems Committee, the unit responsible for advising the country's universities on information technology, has tested the firm's software in five colleges. If all goes well, every university lecturer in the country will soon be able to vet his students' submissions with it.

Turnitin's software chops each paper submitted for scrutiny into small pieces of text. The resulting “digital fingerprint” is compared, using statistical techniques originally designed to analyse brain waves (John Barrie, the firm's founder, was previously a biophysicist), to more than a billion documents that have been fingerprinted in a similar fashion. These include the contents of online paper mills, the classics of literature and the firm's own archive of all submitted term papers, as well as a snapshot of the current contents of the World Wide Web.

Whenever a matching pattern is found, the software makes a note. After highlighting instances of replication, or obvious paraphrasing (according to Turnitin, some 30% of submitted papers are “less than original”), the computer running the software returns the annotated document to the teacher who originally submitted it—leaving him with the final decision on what is and is not permissible.

Which teachers and institutions will choose to employ such software? Past research has shown that, perhaps surprisingly, academic dishonesty correlates with high academic achievement. Nor is public exposure of widespread cheating likely to burnish a university's reputation. Universities with the highest-achieving students and the most unsullied reputations may therefore have the most to lose from anti-plagiarism software. Indeed, a curious pattern has emerged among Turnitin's clients: good universities, such as Duke, Rutgers and Cornell, employ it. Those that like to think of themselves as top-notch, such as Princeton, Yale and Stanford, do not. According to Dr Barrie, “You apply our technology at Harvard and it would be like a nuclear bomb going off.”

Explosions are happening lower down the academic ladder, as well. In January Christine Pelton, a biology teacher in Kansas, was forced out of her job for using Turnitin's software. Just before Christmas she had run 118 essays though the mill, and found that 28 had been plagiarised. Naturally, she failed the cheats. But rather than thank her, the parents of some of those cheats reacted with indignation. They forced the local school board to order her to pass the offenders, and she resigned in protest. Clearly, shooting the messenger has not yet gone out of fashion.

Copyright © 2002 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

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