Lunes 15 de Diciembre de 2008

Cheating 2.0
Por Charles Euchner

Late last year, a student at the American University of Paris sent a request to a company called Writerboard. “I have another paper to write,” he wrote in an email. “It’s another art history paper. It should be around 3–5 pages. It is the same course than [sic] the last two. It should therefore be written with the same approach.” He added: “I have attached the professor’s guideline as well as the other two essays you have written for me.”

The papers Justin (not his real name) attached use dramatically different styles. The first, speaking of a Paul Cézanne critic, states: “While his artistic critical eye seems accurate if not always reliable, the pagan frisson of his Freudian approach is perhaps overly compelling for him.” (The term “pagan frisson” later provoked gallows laughter among art history faculty at the university.) The second paper used a simpler style: “The buildings are cast in various shades of dour gray, structures that rise over 50 feet above the street.”

Almost all students admit some form of cheating. Even worse, most of them find easy rationalizations for cheating.

For his new assignment, Justin asked Writerboard to produce an analysis of a single work of art from two different critical perspectives. Not long after Justin placed his order for a new paper, Professor Anna Russakoff obtained emails that documented her student’s cheating.

Preparing to confront the student, Russakoff asked her department chair and dean for advice. Before Russakoff could confront him, Justin sought help for yet another assignment, this time an analysis of art at the Louvre. After being informed of Justin’s new request for an outside writer—his fourth documented case of at least attempting to cheat—Russakoff lamented in an email: “And wouldn’t you think that if you came to Paris to study art history you might actually WANT to go to the Louvre to look at art...????”

In the following weeks, Russakoff got mixed signals from the university’s administrators. Her department chair agreed that the evidence of cheating was strong, but the dean would not go so far.

When Russakoff confronted the student, he denied any cheating. When he could not define words in the paper such as “eschew” and “obtuse,” he explained that his sister helped him edit the paper. At the suggestion of the dean, the student supplied what he claimed were printouts of emails with his sister. Russakoff is sure Justin produced the materials after the fact, since she possesses his time-stamped emails that show he hired Writerboard to write four papers.

After reading the university’s official policies for dealing with cheating cases—which put the onus on the professor to see any case through—Russakoff decided to give Justin an F for the Cézanne paper and a C-minus for the course. The C-minus meant that Justin would not have to repeat the class, which is required for art history majors. And so Russakoff does not have to teach him again. “It’s probably cowardly,” she says, “but it would have been a lot to deal with.… I’m not even a full-time faculty.”

Justin’s case underscores a growing problem at educational institutions around the world. Technology has created new threats to academic learning and honor. And while Justin was caught in the act, countless students outwit their teachers.

Donald McCabe of Rutgers University, the leading researcher on student cheating, says that the portion of American students who admit to cheating off the Internet—either habitually or occasionally—increased from 10 percent to 40 percent from 1999 to 2004. Students can contract out for papers, download papers from databases, or just cut and paste passages from the Web. In 2007 alone, cheating scandals at Duke, the Air Force Academy, Indiana University, and Ohio University produced national headlines because of the large numbers of students involved.

Many sites—with names like,, and—offer individual papers for sale. Some sites charge as much as several hundred dollars for customized papers, others charge annual fees, and still others offer free exchanges of papers.

But if students use technology to make cheating cheap and effortless, why shouldn’t educators use technology to catch them? A counterattack against cheating is underway using Internet search technologies and large electronic databases to check for matches of passages in papers with other works. The leading player in this counterrevolution, a company called iParadigms, sells a computer-based plagiarism-detection system on a website called Other companies, such as and, provide similar services.

Turnitin’s origins offer a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology in learning. As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, John Barrie was trying to give students the feedback they need to become better writers. Frustrated that he could do little more than assign a grade to papers for his large lecture classes, Barrie fed papers into a database and distributed them to students for anonymous peer critiques. In this way, he hoped, writing would become more engaging, with beneficial feedback for the students.

But Barrie soon saw that this trove of papers was being used by students for other classes, so he wrote a program to nab cheaters by using color-coded passages to show possible matches with content on the Web and in an ever-growing database of student papers. Turnitin was born.

The program became a business in 1996. Students submit their papers directly to the Turnitin site after logging on to a personal account. Each paper becomes part of the company’s database, which, in addition to the Internet, is checked for matches that indicate cheating. now has more than 8,000 clients, including the entire California State University system, Georgetown University, the University of Florida, Rutgers University, Auburn University, and more than 90 percent of colleges and universities in the United Kingdom. Colleges pay from $1,000 to $10,000 to use Turnitin—about 80 cents per student.

In one cheating scandal, 20 students received guilty verdicts and 18 cases ended when students admitted guilt and left the university.

Turnitin gets 20,000 papers a day during peak periods and now boasts a database of more than 22 million papers. One-third of all papers have some kind of suspicious match with previously published material, the company reports. Even faculty who do not like relying on Turnitin to assess their students’ honesty say it offers a good deterrent to cheating.

But Turnitin faces challenges from a technological and strategic arms race on cheating. Many students steal whole passages, change some key words and tenses, and pass the result off as their own work. Wily students even develop their own computer programs to avoid Turnitin’s dragnet. Internet videos and blogs give step-by-step instructions for injecting digital markings into word documents to fool the program.

Along with the technological obstacles Turnitin faces are legal and ethical ones. Turnitin is being challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit for allegedly appropriating the copyrighted work of students without permission or compensation.

In A.V. et al. v. iParadigms, LLC, four students charge that Turnitin violates their constitutional right to copyright. When the school requires students to submit papers to Turnitin—and does not allow students to opt out—the company gains literally millions of pieces of work without permission or compensation. The company claims that students consent by clicking a button agreeing to give the company rights to papers. But if students cannot opt out, that consent is no choice. Even if students could opt out, they would make themselves look suspect.

The case began with a group of students at McLean High School in Virginia. Told they had to turn in papers at Turnitin’s website, the students approached a lawyer named Robert Vanderhye. He agreed with the students’ assertions that it violated copyright and privacy rights. After four students from Virginia and Arizona agreed to be plaintiffs, Vanderhye fi led suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Schools with honor codes have significantly lower rates of cheating.

In a decision this March, Judge Claude Hilton rejected the copyright and privacy claims. Judge Hilton ruled that students consent to give their work to Turnitin when they click “I agree” on Turnitin’s site. Hilton also ruled that Turnitin has a right to the students’ papers under copyright’s fair use doctrine. Arguing that the papers are needed for a legitimate teaching purpose, Hilton ruled that no permission or compensation was necessary. Just as a writer can use brief excerpts of a book in a review, so Turnitin can use the writing of students to further a school’s goal of academic honesty. Turnitin, Hilton wrote, does not “make any use of any work’s particular expressive or creative content beyond the limited use of comparison with other works.”

Just because content is not displayed for public consumption, Vanderhye argues, does not make it less of a violation of copyright law. “It’s still the students’ property,” he says. “They produced it—it’s theirs.”

Turnitin also shares students’ work with other students and with schools. If one student’s paper seems to match another student’s paper, Turnitin often gives the implicated student the evidence— that is, the original paper that was presumably copied. Thus the work of an honest student can be shared with another student without the student’s permission. Turnitin also reserves the right to sell its content to other companies and to share it with school systems.

During the discovery process, Vanderhye says he obtained the names, addresses, and other personal information about students whose papers were in Turnitin’s database. “What if I were a pervert and I had this information?” he asks. “How are students—minors!—going to be protected from others getting information about them?”

Vanderhye vows to take the case “as far as we have to go”—including the Supreme Court. For now, both sides are getting ready for oral arguments in early December at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals—but the overloaded court grants appeals less than a third of the time.

Beyond the legal questions, critics say that no matter how well-intentioned, the technology fosters a culture of mistrust on campus.

One example of the alleged corrosive effect of electronic watchdogs can be found on the campus of the University of Virginia. Louis Bloomfield, a popular U.Va. physics professor, became the target of personal threats and ostracism when he devised a computer program that detected if one paper matched another with identical phrases of six or more words.

In December 2001, Bloomfield identified 158 students involved in a plagiarism scandal and referred them to the university’s honor board. Of the 59 cases sent to trial, 20 resulted in guilty verdicts and 18 ended when students admitted guilt and left the university. The controversy lasted until November 2002—but, according to Bloomfield, the bitterness and mutual distrust among the professor, faculty and administration, and students continues to this day.

If technology isn’t the answer, what is? Universities have adopted a number of new policies to combat cheating, such as severe punishments, stricter proctoring of exams, and better design of exams. The University of Maryland pioneered the use of “XF” grades to students to indicate failing grades because of cheating.

One possible solution is adoption of the honor code. Only about 100 of 4,000 U.S. universities use the honor system, which requires students to make a specific commitment to honesty and also to policing others. A number of schools, such as Kansas State University and the University of Maryland, have adopted honor systems in recent years. The codes of the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary extend beyond classes to cover stealing and other violations.

Students say they cheat because they want to please parents and professors and face intense competition for grad schools and jobs.

The honor system explicitly makes honesty the core value of the university. Students must take formal pledges before taking classes. Violators are punished severely for all violations. Traditional codes give students primary responsibility for leadership and enforcement; students have the power and responsibility to police themselves and others.

Modified codes give faculty and administrators greater roles, proctoring exams and managing violations, for example.

Schools with honor codes have lower rates of cheating, but the rates are still significant. The Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University found that while 45 percent of students at colleges without codes cheat, only 33 percent of students at schools with modified honor codes cheat and 23 percent of students at schools with traditional codes cheat.

With cheating so rampant, the onus falls on professors to police their students when they would rather be doing research. Many judicial processes take months and even years. Unless the evidence is completely airtight—something tantamount to a full confession—judicial boards are frequently reluctant to brand students as cheaters. Administrators are often more concerned with damage control and image than by-the-books enforcement. Many faculty report fears of lawsuits from aggrieved students and their parents. A student expelled from the University of Virginia sued the university for not adequately teaching him to understand standards of honesty.

Longtime professors say that only changing assignments can put a dent in cheating. Tests should not be recycled but produced anew every semester. Tests for large classes should mix up the order of questions so students cannot signal answers. Writing assignments should ask questions that cannot be snagged from the Web; rather than asking psychology students to compare the efficacy of talk therapy and medications, for example, students should be asked to relate the issues to something that only they know.

Donald McCabe has conducted massive surveys of college and high school students to determine the scope of cheating for almost two decades. A former businessman who now teaches business at Rutgers University, McCabe has surveyed 165,000 students at 160 colleges and universities, 18,000 faculty at 110 institutions, and 35,000 students at high schools.

The results are staggering. Almost all students admit some form of cheating. Even worse, most of them find easy rationalizations for cheating.

Students tell McCabe they cheat because they face too many pressures, want to please parents and professors, and face intense competition for grad schools and jobs. They also say they would be suckers to refrain from cheating when so many around them do it. They say they cheat when they take required classes that don’t interest them, or when the professor doesn’t care about students or standards. Some say they cheat because it’s the way of the world, and that getting others to do their work is a skill that they’ll use in business.

A student can also use the Internet to cheat without any face-to-face interaction, making it easier to give in to the temptation. Dartmouth College ethics professor Aine Donovan says, “If you asked someone if they walked into a Barnes and Noble and stole a CD, they would say, ‘No, of course not.’” But you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t downloaded pirated music, she says.

The growth in the number of students attending college might also be contributing to more cheating. Since baby boomers flooded campuses in the 1960s, scholars have worried about students being unprepared for college. Richard Vedder, Thomas Sowell, and Charles Murray have estimated that as many as half of all students are not prepared for college work.

Perhaps the growth of cheating suggests an even more intractable problem, mirroring a larger breakdown in social order. When the community does not make an active effort to maintain order, more people are emboldened to violate rules.

Russakoff, the art historian at the American University of Paris, was chastened by her experience trying to deal with a cheater. She has revised her syllabus to warn against plagiarism. She requires all students to be able to explain every part of the paper to get credit for it. It is a shame she must resort to such efforts, she says. “It’s sad people in general don’t take plagiarism seriously.”

  15/12/2008. The American Magazine.