Paper Trail

The Cat-and-Mouse of the Game of Online Plagiarism

"I am an Evil House of Cheat subscriber. Ever since I've had access to your service my grade in English 102 has gone from an 'F' to a 'B.' I use the cheathouse for other classes too, like Philosophy and history. Thank you for saving my butt— A happy anonymous user." Testimonials trumpet across Evil House of Cheat's Web site (cheathouse.com), gushing praise for this racket, which lets online clients download their pick of more than 2000 previously written term papers for free. "Super Users" who ante up $9.95 a year get full clearance to an additional 9500-plus essays locked into the site's database.

Evil House of Cheat is among the 100 or more Web sites currently found on the Internet that allow students to download archived or custom-written papers. Some students cut and paste portions of these to create an entirely new document. Term paper mills run somewhat like co-ops and typically solicit essays from students, who post their work, bibliographies and citations included, at no charge.

Commercial sites, on the other hand, jettison any association with their term paper­mill country cousins by calling themselves "research companies" and often supplement student submissions by hiring professional writers to pen tailor-made term papers for clients. Price tags for these "reference materials" can range from about $7.50 to $1000 an essay.

As clever as it may sound, plagiarizing via the Internet is a fresh riff on the traditional practice of fraternities and sororities offering members term paper files to sift through by subject or instructor.

But now, teachers who may have previously cross-examined suspicious students by asking them to orally dissect their term paper's argument are now funneling college and university funds toward Internet-based antiplagiarism services and software. This means instructors and students are wielding the same weapon, the World Wide Web, in this cyber brouhaha. For teachers, a grudging reliance on technology coexists with the reality that some students are genuinely unaware that information must be attributed when it is culled from a clearinghouse like the Internet— just as when it is taken from a newspaper or an encyclopedia. The boundaries between research and cheating are becoming increasingly ambiguous.

"One time I was teaching a summer version of my class and a student turned in bits and pieces of information on Captain Ahab that she had downloaded off, I kid you not, schoolsucks.com [a term paper mill]. Without any apparent irony whatsoever," marvels Professor Cyrus Patell, who has taught English at New York University since 1993.

A 1995 survey conducted by Rutgers University professor Donald L. McCabe for the Center for Academic Integrity, a Durham, North Carolina­based organization that promotes honesty across college campuses, reported that nearly 80 percent of students have confessed to cheating. While most experts believe that the Internet will increase cheating, McCabe is a vocal minority, maintaining that the rise will not be dramatic. He argues that the same people who four years ago lifted passages from books are now downloaders.

Educators should shoulder some responsibility for those abysmal statistics, says Barbara Glatt of Glatt Plagiarism Services (plagiarism.com), which counts the State University of New York as a client. Students are not always taught what it means to plagiarize, observes Glatt, who believes handbooks that spell out what constitutes cheating ought to be distributed the first day of classes.

Glatt peddles her $250 online screening program to instructors who suspect students of using term paper mills. Her software removes every fifth word of the essays in question, then asks writers to fill in the blanks. A low score usually indicates plagiarism, since "you know and can recall your own writing better than anyone else . . . assuming you've authored it," says Glatt, who says she does not monitor the number of students implicated in cheating by her operation, based in Chicago and Sacramento, California.

NYU's Patell says that stylistic differences, like disjointed sentences or highbrow vocabulary not used in class, are hallmarks of pilferage and still considers them the most reliable tip-offs. However, Patell contends that "any student who is incredibly smart, who is an inveterate liar and inveterate cheat, is going to fool us."

Warren Brantner still believes in fighting— and winning— the good fight. Brantner, cofounder, along with partner Michael Drawbaugh, of IntegriGuard (integriguard.com), a new Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Web site dedicated to "Protecting Academic Integrity," wants to annihilate online term paper mills before they become the next Cliffs Notes.

Last October, Brantner and Drawbaugh downloaded 14,200 term papers from a variety of term paper sources like Evil House of Cheat and schoolsucks.com to create the essay database for their software program, which costs $4.95 per month. IntegriGuard assigns identification numbers to registered instructors, which they pass along to students. When students log on to the site, they are sent to paperbin.com, where they turn in their research papers. IntegriGuard software then checks random sections in the student documents against its essay database for a close match. "It's like Russian roulette. It's not 100 percent, but the odds will get better that they'll get caught," says Brantner, who reports one student casualty of his service.

Even among a rogues' gallery of online term paper hawkers that includes A-1 Termpapers, Genius Papers, and other slick agents of dupery, schoolsucks.com looms as a titan. Since all its money comes from advertisers, who pay between $500 and $4000 a month to display their banners on the Web site, 270,000 schoolsucks.com users are able to download term papers free of charge 1.6 million times a month. That translates into 4 million "hits" per month, up from 40,000 in 1997.

Schoolsucks.com president Kenny Sahr fends off allegations of assisted cheating by insisting that the U.S. school system is in shambles and that the Web site is doing students a service by giving them resources their teachers are neglecting to provide in the classroom. "First, if we wanted students to plagiarize, we would rate the papers," Sahr explains on the Web site. "For the most part, they're nothing to brag about."

Legally, online term paper mills have yet to be quashed by academia. In December, a federal court dismissed a 1997 suit against five companies— originally eight— accused by Boston University of engaging in a "patently immoral and illegal business" that would help students obtain degrees through false means. The university requested that the court order the companies to quit selling and distributing term papers throughout Massachusetts. But the judge who dismissed the case ruled that the companies did little actual damage and the suit itself was based upon misapplied state and federal laws.

Yet for all the wrangling over online plagiarism, ultimately it will be users, not educators, who determine— either from the grades they receive or an ethical awakening— whether to shelve term paper mills as second-string resource sites. The choice will be tough, since for some students the issue is not necessarily cheating.

"It seems to be a cut-and-dry thing. You turn in work not your own, obviously that's plagiarism," says Patrick Grizzard, a graduate student in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU. "But if you have the right to publish instructions on how to manufacture illicit substances or explosive devices on the Internet, how can you say you don't have the right to publish people's papers?"


CORRECTION: An item in last week's Signal & Noise about EFF's Cooperative Computing Awards mistakenly reported that the largest known prime number is 909,526. In fact, the largest known prime number is 909,526 digits long.

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