THE FALL SEMESTER OPENED this year with unprecedented concern over the scope of plagiarism in higher education. A virtual epidemic of cheating, or perhaps just a new awareness, has spread across the academic world. A web search for "plagiarism" reveals numerous articles published this past summer alone in the higher education press.
Reports of book authors and journalists caught copying the works of others without attribution are also frequent. A common thread through these events is the idea that the web and internet make cheating easy. Yet many of these instances of plagiarism are detected by sharp-eyed users of the networks.
Estimates of the frequency of plagiarism by students vary, with rates of 70 percent or more often asserted. The Center for Academic Integrity (www.academicintegrity.org) at Duke University (N.C.), for example, surveyed more than 50,000 students and found that 40 percent admitted using at least few unacknowledged borrowings in their papers.
Most observers concede that plagiarism is not new but wonder really how widespread it has become. The temptation to cut and paste is undeniable; the vastness of the web and internet gives an illusion of safety from detection.
Cheaters exhibit varying degrees of deception. Some, desperate in the face of deadlines or simply lazy, lift a few sentences, weaving them into their own writing. Or perhaps they appropriate whole passages from sources they think nobody else will find. But others make more deliberate efforts to cover their tracks, substituting synonyms or embroidering new sentences to alter copied paragraphs.
Commonly used web search engines are an obvious and easily available means for trying to counter plagiarism. If casual or incautious copiers find materials in places discoverable by ordinary searching, then faculty should be able to trace suspicious wording by the same means. But a growing multitude of software packages and search services is springing up to offer help in detecting plagiarism.
The University of Virginia website, for one, offers a free program called Wcopyfind that compares submitted flies to search for shared phrases. It searches files on local and locally networked drives but is not able to search the web or internet.
The Essay Verification Engine, or EVE2, searches the web to find pages from which a writer might have plagiarized and returns links to the suspected sites, high-lighting in red all the passages in the submitted paper that appear to have been copied from the detected sources. Compatible with Microsoft Word, Cord Word Perfect, or plain text formats, EVE2 sells for $30, with no recurring fees.
Plagiarism-Finder from Mediaphor Software AG, meanwhile, conducts web searches starting from texts in several formats, including Adobe PDF. The publisher suggests that authors and journalists could also use the program to check whether their texts are being plagiarized on the web. Plagiarism-Finder costs $125 and is available for a free 30-day trial.
A different approach is taken by the Glatt Plagiarism Screening Program. This program challenges writers to recreate the texts they claim to have created. It masks every fifth word of a submitted text and then measures accuracy and elapsed time while the author of that paper is challenged to fill in the blanks correctly.
The software is based on a principle that every writer has a unique style and will be highly successful at remembering written passages, even those with missing words. The Glatt Plagiarism Screening Program sells for $250.
Considered by many to be the leading anti-plagiarism product, Turnitin searches the web and some proprietary databases and a collection of already-submitted papers. A product of iParadigms, Turnitin creates what the company terms a "fingerprint" of a submitted paper, which it then compares to its three sources of information. …