Rooting out plagiarists with software

It's become easy for students to buy term papers on the Web and copy research they find online. But now, with the help of a few start-ups, some teachers are fighting back.

Margaret Kane Former Staff writer, CNET News
Margaret is a former news editor for CNET News, based in the Boston bureau.
Margaret Kane
4 min read
Anyone who has attended school these days has probably heard stories about plagiarism and the Internet.

Don't want to write that research paper or essay? Just buy one off the Web. Another option: Use the cut-and-paste feature to make a collage out of research works online.

Of course, teachers have heard the same stories students have. And now, especially with final exams in the air, some of them are fighting back with the help of a few companies that have sprung up offering technology to help uncover plagiarism.

Privately held companies like WordCheck Systems, iParadigms and CaNexus.com, which use software to target plagiarism, largely fly under the radar of Wall Street and the media. But with plagiarism getting national attention because of several high-profile scandals in the research world, some of the companies are looking to expand their business, targeting professional publishing houses and researchers as potential new markets.

The companies can go after cheaters in several different ways. Depending on what service a teacher uses, papers can be compared against textbooks, literature, works of other students, or the products of so-called online paper mills--sites where students can download papers.

Although each company's software works differently, they generally use algorithms that can divide a long document and make comparisons across a database. Once likely matches are found, word-by-word comparisons can be performed.

Lost in the crowd
Some companies say they can even detect collusion: for example, students submitting the same paper in different sections of a large class where multiple teaching assistants grade work.

That's the problem faced by Andrew McCann, an instructor of English and philosophy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He and his team are teaching a freshman class of around 400 engineering students, all of whom will be given the same assignments.

"There are ways to get around this without using any software. You can assign original or unusual readings, or ask students to make very unusual comparisons in their work," McCann said. "But if you're using a common work, as we are this year with (the Ralph Ellison book) 'Invisible Man,' there are legions of Web sites (and other sources) devoted to it."

McCann said he's seen "a continuum" of plagiarism problems, ranging from incorrectly cited paragraphs to entire papers being copied. His team will be running a test of WordCheck Keyword Software for the students' next major paper.

Until now, companies in this market have specialized in eyeing students--amateur writers, as it were. But the recent scandals surrounding historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose--both of whom were accused of, and admitted to, inappropriate copying of others' work--may have provoked interest in the professional world.

Interest, however, may not translate into sales. The companies behind plagiarism-detection software don't reveal sales or earnings figures since they are privately held, but they maintain they are doing well.

John Barrie, the founder of iParadigms, which produces Turnitin.com, one of the better-known companies in the business, has been in talks with several major publishing companies. So far, however, no deals have been signed.

"It's almost an unspoken concern among publishers," he said. "You go out there and you talk to editors and publishers. They know it's happening."

Opening Pandora's box
Barrie said publishers were reluctant to tackle the matter before because they thought it would just open a Pandora's box. "But recently, as the discussion in this country begins to ramp up here, some publishers are looking around and saying, 'We have to do something,'" he said. The press about Goodwin and Ambrose "is definitely one of the reasons."

WordCheck Systems sees another market within academia. But this time the people being checked out are the researchers and professors.

The company is betting that the market will be driven by a policy recently put in place by the Federal Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Federal Policy on Research Misconduct includes plagiarism as a type of misconduct, and states that research institutions "bear primary responsibility for prevention and detection of research misconduct, and for the inquiry, investigation and adjudication of research misconduct alleged to have occurred in association with their own institution."

In a nutshell, if someone plagiarizes work when applying for a federal grant or when conducting research paid for by a federal grant, the institution he or she works for can be punished. Since those punishments could include being barred from receiving federal grants or even being charged with criminal or civil fraud, universities may sit up and take notice.

"Can you imagine what would happen to a school like MIT if they lost federal privileges?" said Richard L. Austin, who created the concept for WordCheck Keyword Software and designed the interface. Austin serves as associate professor of horticulture at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. "You remove a university's federal grant privileges and that university will die."

Of course, a low-tech way to stop these problems would be to simply persuade students, researchers and authors not to copy someone else's work. But that may become more and more difficult in a world where everything from music to movies can be copied for free off the Internet.

"Students have never been taught that it's wrong. There's just a culture out there that says this is OK," Austin said.

Tighter security isn't the answer, Barrie said, since every time companies come up with new ways to protect their property, someone will come up with new ways to get around those protections.

"These things keep failing, yet they keep trying to do the same thing," Barrie said. "It's an analog Band-Aid for a digital problem. Napster comes along, they call out the lawyers. Morpheus comes, they call out the lawyers. What they will have to do is go to a system (and) track where their intellectual property ends up and charge royalties. In the meantime, lawyers are making an enormous amount of money playing whack-a-mole."