Catching Digital Cheaters
When Kenny Sahr started School Sucks three years ago, the 28-year-old had an unusual business scheme: to post free homework assignments online.
With only one term paper, he bought the domain schoolsucks.com for US$100. Now, the free term-paper site receives ad revenue in six digits, doubling every year.
“We’ve been profitable from Day 1,” Sahr said.
School Sucks is one of many online term paper mills or “cheat sites” on the Internet, where students can download prewritten term papers for free or for a modest fee.
Term paper mills are nothing new to students; mail-order services have long been popular on college campuses. But with the Internet, such services are thriving. School Sucks is far from being alone in the growing, and lucrative, term-paper online service market.
Cheater.com, created by 18-year-old Paul Roberts, averages about 60,000 page views per day. Dorian’s Paper Archive, a site run out of a Harvard sophomore’s dorm room, offers free essays on topics from Japanese history to Shakespeare.
For fee-based term paper services such as The Evil House of Cheat, which has over 9,500 essays and over 4,000 visitors a day, business is booming — much to the consternation of academics.
And then there’s John Barrie, who may be the phenomenon’s worst nightmare. Barrie, a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, created Plagiarism.org as a technical solution to “wipe out term paper mills.”
Plagiarism.org aims to turn the tables on student-run cheat sites by giving educators a tool to check potentially plagiarized works.
“The problem is huge,” said Barrie. “We’re seeing a 10 to 15 percent rate of plagiarism in universities where we are testing.”
While individual instructors could spend hours surfing to track original sources, Plagiarism.org’s meta-search technology takes a matter of seconds to locate duplicate material.An instructor uploads a term paper to the Plagiarism.org site, where it is digitally “finger-printed” and checked against a database of other manuscripts on the Internet. Suspect sentences, paragraphs, and sections are flagged for unoriginality.
But students are aware of these plagiarism detection services and take measures to avoid getting caught.
“Please throw in some errors and make it high school level, I’ll do the work just get me the damn essay … ASAP. It’s due in two days!” writes a member of The Essay Depot.
These sites are filled with disclaimers.
“This Web site was made for research purposes! Don’t turn these papers in, unless you wish to be failed for the act of plagiarism…. Your teachers know about this site so be wary!” reads the disclaimer for The Essay Depot.
Commercial term-paper mills are only part of the larger problem of Internet plagiarism, said Dean Patrick Drinan, former president of the Center for Academic Integrity.
Students can cut and paste from random Web sites without making attributions, going so far as to access example term papers from other universities.
Unintentional plagiarism, by students who turn in papers in good faith, but aren’t diligent enough in attributing sources, may be an even greater problem, said Drinan. “The velocity of data is immense,” he said.
So far, colleges have been largely unsuccessful in fighting Internet-abetted plagiarism. Boston University’s lawsuit against eight Internet term-paper companies in seven states was recently thrown out of Federal court.
Plagiarism.org is negotiating with UC-Berkeley to check every term paper this spring. With a pilot project in the UK and over 300 requests from top universities, the service is in high demand.
“I think our service will cause an immediate increase in student ethics and an increase in the quality of student work because instructors will be able to instantly assess whether a paper is original,” Barrie said.
Plagiarism.org has already filled its database with free term papers from free sites. Eventually, Barrie said, the service will also impair for-profit term paper mills, which rely on recycling papers.Cheater.com’s Roberts is worried that services such as Plagiarism.org will scare students away from using the site as a resource. He insists that fee-based sites are more problematic.
“I don’t think people should sell term papers. The whole point of the site is for it to be used as a resource, not to cheat,” Roberts said. “People that buy term papers only intend to use those papers to cheat and call them their own.”
“We’re not out to accuse anybody of plagiarism,” counters Barrie. “We’re trying to get information to instructors that they couldn’t otherwise get for themselves.”
“Nothing on our end will tell you whether a student has cheated or plagiarized. No computer can say ‘this is an original work.’”
Barrie hopes that Plagiarism.org will wipe out cheat sites. “Five years from now, for-profit term paper mills will be an urban myth,” he predicts.
Not everyone agrees that these detection services will eliminate online term paper sites. Services like Plagiarism.org “are proof of the impact that School Sucks is having,” said Sahr. “We plan on keeping those folks at Plagiarism.org busy.”
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