ASEE Prism Magazine - December 1998

Student Plagiarism in an Online World

Student Plagiarism in an Online World

The proliferation of webpages and electronic publications makes plagiarism easier to accomplish and harder to recognize. Here are some tools to help you expose cybercheaters.

By Julie J.C.H. Ryan

In academe, the consequences of plagiarism are clear: Using someone else's words or ideas without attribution is grounds for failed assignments, suspension, or expulsion. For some students, however, breaking the rules seems to be an irresistible challenge. And so the game goes: Students continually look for (and find) ways to cheat, and teachers remain on the alert for purloined paragraphs, pages, and even entire papers.

Plagiarized work used to be generated through frat house recycling efforts, purchased from local ghost writers, or simply copied from campus library reference materials—all clumsy efforts readily detectable by educators familiar with their course material. But the World Wide Web and other electronic resources have changed the game and left educators scrambling to keep abreast of plagiarists' new methods.

[Abusing Electronic Media]

Before the world was linked by the Internet, hard-to-detect plagiarism required ingenuity and skill. But today, with the click of a mouse, even technologically inept students have access to vast information resources in cyberspace without having to leave the comfort of their dorm rooms.

A few words typed into a Web search engine can lead a student to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of relevant documents, making it easy to "cut and paste" a few paragraphs from here and a few more from there until the student has an entire paper-length collection. Or a student can find a research paper published in one of the hundreds of new journals that have gone online over the past few years, copy the entire text, turn it into a new document, and then offer it up as an original work without having to type anything but a cover page. Even recycling efforts and ghost writers have gone global, with Web sites offering professionally or student-written research papers for sale, some even with a money back guarantee against detection.

Facing the New Plagiarism Reality

I ran headlong into these new practices during the fall 1997 semester as my husband and I each taught an introductory information security concepts course for George Washington University. When students turned in their required research papers, we were initially surprised at how well they seemed to have mastered the course material. But when we looked closer, we realized that in many cases we were not looking at original student work.

Consider the following extract from one of the student-submitted papers:

Both the government and the healthcare unions agree that electronic health records must be at least as well protected as paper ones; the Data Protection Act makes physicians and others responsible for the security of personal health information that they collect; and a recent Directive obliges the government to prohibit the processing of health data except where the data subject has given his explicit consent, and in certain other circumstances.

The level of erudition, education, and sophistication evidenced in this extract (and the entire document) made it immediately suspect—the student was, after all, taking an introductory course in information security concepts. To satisfy his curiosity, my husband asked me to research the paper content for possible plagiarism. I did so using the tool most readily available, the Internet. It didn't take me long to find an exact match.

I used the AltaVista Search engine to conduct a search for specific phrases (or strings) in the paper. To search for an exact match, I used quotation marks around the string. If quotations marks are not used, the results will include Web pages that contain some or all of the words in the string.

I also could have performed a category search using one of the comprehensive listing services that index Web sites by category. Yahoo! is one of the most popular sites of this type. Comprehensive list sites give you two search options. You can choose a category from the site's standing lists, or you can type a few words into the search box and the site's internal search engine will retrieve a list of categories and Web site that include the words in your search parameters. I found the following extract in an online journal article by Ross J. Anderson, a distinguished University of Cambridge computer researcher. The differences from the previous extract are underlined:

Both the government and the healthcare unions are agreed that electronic health records must be at least as well protected as paper ones; the Data Protection Act makes GPs and others responsible for the security of personal health information that they collect; and a recent EU Directive obliges the government to prohibit the processing of health data except where the data subject has given his explicit consent, and in certain other circumstances [EU95].

It took me five minutes on the Internet to determine the probable source of the paper, and another 10 minutes to confirm word-for-word plagiarism. The entire paper, including the title, table of contents, and bibliography, was plagiarized. An open-and-shut case.

Once I caught the first plagiarism, I decided to check every paper. I discovered that seven of 42 students plagiarized most or all of their papers, and four others turned in papers with footnotes that could charitably be called substandard.

In the spring 1998 semester I discovered that the same percentage of students—one out of every six—plagiarized their entire papers. Also, as in the previous semester, several students' papers had inadequate footnotes.


[To Catch a Plagiarist]

The World Wide Web provides plagiarists with a rich library of material from which to gather information, but it also provides professors with a powerful tool to check sources and catch the word thieves.

The laziness that prompts students to cheat can also prompt them to do a terrible job with their plagiarism. Being able to copy electronic source material rids them of the chore of retyping the paper, and some students don't even bother to proofread the results. These halfhearted efforts can easily be detected if you know what to look for.

Context Change.

Students try to camouflage copying by changing the context of the original paper. For example, I received a paper purported to be a draft information security policy for an institute in Korea. The references to Massachusetts law were, therefore, somewhat startling. It turned out that the paper was an almost complete copy of Harvard University's information security policy.

Missing Footnotes.

One technique that seems to appeal to plagiarists is to skip footnotes altogether. This is presumably done with the notion that when challenged, the student can point to a bibliography and claim ignorance regarding proper footnoting procedure. I have, in fact, had students try this defense. To counter this, sit down with the student and ask him or her about the subject matter of the paper and the cited bibliographic references. If the student doesn't understand or can't discuss the ideas presented in the paper, or doesn't know the subject matter of the books referenced, then it's safe to assume the student didn't write the paper.

False References.

Citing nonexistent books or journal articles, or refering to sources unrelated to the subject matter is also common. Usually sparsely identified, these references tend to list overview or general subject texts, as opposed to the much more specific sources found in legitimate papers.

For example, a false footnote from a spring 1998 paper:

Pfleeger, Charles P. (1997) Security in Computing. New Jersey

A real footnote from a legitimate paper that same semester:

Denning, Dorothy E., Encryption Policy and Market Trends,, March 14, 1998.

True footnotes explain the source of data or some technicality in the text, while false footnotes may stand out because of their placement.

An example from a spring 1998 paper:

Encryption systems fall into two broad classes (Fites & Kratz, 1993). Conventional or symmetric cryptosystems—those in which an entity with the ability to encrypt also has the ability to decrypt and vice versa—are the systems under consideration in this paper. . . . All known public key cryptosystems, however, are subject to shortcut attacks and must therefore use keys ten or more times the length of those discussed here to achieve an equivalent level of security.

Note several things about the reference—it is placed where it appears to substantiate the purported fact that there are two broad classes of encryption systems. However, this is a widely held piece of knowledge that does not warrant footnoting except by the most compulsive of students. The sentences following that, however, are quite different. They do, in fact, warrant footnoting in that they convey specific information that is not in the realm of what may be purported to be common knowledge. And yet there is no footnote.

Further, an examination of the Fites & Katz reference reveals it to be a general purpose text of some age (in an era when information technology turns over generationally every 18 months or so, even a few years can have dramatic effects on the content of a text). As referenced: Fites, Philip & Kratz, Martin P. J., (1993). Information Systems Security. New York.

Online bookstores provide book descriptions and reviews, and information on availability, all of which can be used to make sure a reference book is appropriate for the subject matter. Using the online bookstore revealed that the true title of the above-mentioned text to be Information Systems Security: A Practitioner's Reference, and that it is out of print. A search on the Internet using the AltaVista search engine revealed a source with more information on the subject matter of the text:

Information Systems Security: A Practitioner's Reference. Philip Fites and Martin P. J. Kratz
You will refer to this valuable resource again and again. There are chapters on countermeasures, designing secure systems, software, accounting and auditing controls. Operations and physical security in fire prevention, libraries and database protection, waste disposal and storage are all discussed. All-encompassing and up-to-date, it's a vital reference tool! 471 pp., 1993 SCVR (, 13 May 1998)

Clearly the text, while useful, is not a cryptography reference. In this case, the false footnote actually highlighted the suspect nature of the text. Other suspect elements of this passage include the reference to "systems under consideration in this paper." As the paper was purportedly an analysis on electronic terrorism, this phrase seemed odd.

A string search on the Internet, again using the AltaVista search engine, revealed the true source of the material:

Minimal Key Lengths for Symmetric Ciphers to Provide Adequate Commercial Security: A Report by an Ad Hoc Group of Cryptographers and Computer Scientists, January 1996, by Matt Blaze et al.

This paper is published on the Internet at multiple locations.


Cyberspace Cooperation

While AltaVista and other search engines are excellent resources, they are of little or no use if the source text was not electronically published. In this case, an investigator can occasionally find clues in a paper that can point to the true author. An example of this occurred in a paper that appeared to be scanned in from a source text. The following is a quote from that student-submitted paper:

NetBill, a system under development at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Pittsburgh, in joint action with Mellon Bank Corp., also in Pittsburgh, is accelerated for delivering such information goods as text, images, and software over the Internet. Its developers, including the author, have stressed the significance of securing that consumers receive the information they pay for. For that reason, consumers are not charged until the information has actually been delivered to them.

This paper initially frustrated me, because I had a very strong suspicion that it was plagiarized but couldn't find the source of this text using either a string or category search.

However, the conjunction of references to "the author" and to what seemed to be a proprietary product of Carnegie Mellon University—NetBill—led me to the Carnegie Mellon University Web site. I used the site's internal search engine to find references to NetBill. In doing so, I discovered that Marvin Sirbu is leader of the NetBill project. The search also provided Sirbu's e-mail address.

I immediately sent an e-mail to Sirbu, inquiring as to whether he found that text extract familiar. Sirbu's reply included both the source identification and a URL from which the original document was available. When I compared the original with the student paper, I discovered that the entire paper was plagiarized, including the section headings.

If the Carnegie Mellon site had not provided Sirbu's e-mail address, I could have tried a string search of his name or used one of the many "phone book"-type search engines to hunt down the information.

These search tools may be new to you, but all are relatively easy to use. Most Web search sites have "Help" sections that provide information on using their specific search engines, and there are several sites dedicated to search instruction, including Search Insider.


[Why cheating still matters]

The papers that are the subject of this article were out-and-out forgeries, with inadequate, nonexistent, or false footnotes. In many cases the plagiary attempts were so patently obvious they were insulting.

The attempted deception is particularly disturbing because the class was an overview of information security concepts and practices. The curriculum focused on the value and protection of information, and specific readings and lectures addressed copyright law and other relevant topics. These students will go on to computer-related careers where they have to deal with information security issues on a regular basis, yet they showed no regard for information's basic value.

Also disturbing was students' reactions when caught. Instead of expressing shame or remorse, reactions included denial (even in the face of overwhelming evidence) and defiance. One student even exclaimed: "You can't do this to me—I'm on a scholarship!" A response from another student caught plagiarizing is immortalized in the following e-mail:

Hi prof.
I just wanted to tell you something. I called all my friends and asked them how they usually do their papers. Most of them told me that they do the same thing. They didn't know it is illegal and they can't do that. Can you believe it?
Anyway, I told some of them what I did and what happened to me and they were shocked. They didn't know that what they do is wrong . . .
That's why, I did that without knowing it's wrong. Also, I talked to my advisor in the writing center who reviewed my paper. He told me that he didn't notice that, even though I gave him all the articles I used in my paper. . . All I want to say is that I wanted to get an A in your class and I wanted to give you a good paper. . . .

Several other students made similar ignorance pleas when confronted, despite the fact that we emphasized acceptable footnoting practices for research papers during both semesters. In spring 1998, the emphasis on proper procedure was naturally even higher than it had been in fall 1997, and the repercussions from the preceding semester were still a subject of gossip within the student population. Thus it was quite startling to yet again see students attempt to pass off other people's works as their own.



Often lost in the discussion of plagiarism is the interest of the students who don't cheat. They do legitimate research and write their own papers. They work harder (and learn more) than the plagiarists, yet their grades may suffer when their papers are judged and graded against papers that are superior but stolen material. Students have a right to expect fairness in the classroom. When teachers turn a blind eye to plagiarism, it undermines that right and denigrates grades, degrees, and even institutions.

Plagiarism is alive and well on campuses and in cyberspace. But educators should take some solace in the fact that while the Internet is a useful resource for plagiarists, it is also an excellent tool to use against them.

Julie J.C.H. Ryan is a graduate teaching assistant at
George Washington University and an information security consultant.


Fighting Tools

String Search Sites

Search Help Sites

Category Search Sites

Online Bookstores

People Search Sites



Virtual Epidemic or Limited Reality?

Computer technology can make it easy for students to pass off others' work as their ownóbut has the amount of plagiarism on campuses really increased? It's difficult to determine because no one has made a serious effort to compile statistics on cybercheating. However, anecdotal evidence from educators does suggests that Web-aided plagiarism is becoming the method of choice for the lazy and dishonest writer.

Accurately estimating any form of academic dishonesty has always been difficult, but some schools do try. Virginia Tech tracks cases of honor code violations, including computer-related incidents. Worcester Polytechnic Institute administers an anonymous survey every few years to gauge students' perception of, and participation in, instances of cheating. Both approaches seem likely to underestimate the problem for several reasons: educators do not report every incident, many students are never caught, and not all students will own-up to cheating, even on an anonymous survey.

Does your school track Internet-related plagiarism? Is it a problem on your campus? ASEE PRISM invites you to share your data, anecdotes, and thoughts on the subject, as well as any "cybersleuthing" suggestions you may have: send your comments to:


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