[Air-l] FW: <toc>--Cheat-detection software (Economist.com)

Michael Gurstein mgurst at vcn.bc.ca
Sun Mar 24 04:46:44 PST 2002


Please note that my comments on "Plagiarism and Napster" were meant as a
commentary on developments such as below, rather than on any particular
contribution to this list and particularly not Lori Kendall's very
innovative approaches to the matter as outlined in her recent post.

MG

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 Mar 14th 2002


        Economist.com

        Cheat-detection software

        Plagiarise. Let no one else's work evade your eyes


 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.


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