Program Catches Copycat Students
May 5, 2001 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Program Catches Copycat Students "A professor at the University of Virginia has nabbed 122 students for plagiarism using a computer program he wrote himself". This really sucks, doesn't it?
posted by matteo (41 comments total)
Don't do the crime if you can't do the time. Cliche, but true.
posted by davidmsc at 9:26 AM on May 5, 2001

This really sucks, doesn't it?

No, as a matter of fact, I think quite the opposite. Students at UVA know on enrollment that if it is determined that they have cheated, lied or plagiarized, they will be expelled. It appears that a group of not-so-smart kids may be guilty of at least two of those three and hoped to "get away with it" because of the sheer volume of work the professor was having to review. Oops - wrong. It also looks like the prof is being pretty fair about it: his comparison program looks for blocks of 500 words or more that are the same as previously examined papers...How stupid do you have to be?
posted by m.polo at 9:29 AM on May 5, 2001

Well, it's not exactly *blocks* of 500 words, m.polo, but not that it matters. People who did shit like this in college pissed me off to no end, especially when the class was being curved. Now if only the computer science professors would start doing this sort of thing for code...
posted by fusinski at 9:33 AM on May 5, 2001

122 students? Is it that hard to take half an hour and write out a paper? But from what I've read these days, a half and hour writing or learning is a half an hour wasted no rioting, boozing or stealing newspapers.

Was this posted elsewhere before? Because I'm sure I've seen it somewhere.

Whatever way, I'm for it, plagiarism sucks.
posted by tiaka at 9:33 AM on May 5, 2001

Actually, no, it doesn't suck. Cheaters throw off curves (when there is a curve in a particular class) and just generally piss off the students who actually take the time to write the paper without plagiarizing. I applaud Bloomfield for catching cheaters.

The penalties, it seems, are harsh. But most schools have an academic honesty/anti-plagiarism policy so the students should be aware what kind of jeopardy they are in when they cheat.
posted by sabbydarling at 9:33 AM on May 5, 2001

Wow, my post looks weird coming directly after someone who says "Plagiarism sucks." What I meant was that plagiarism sucks. I was responding to the original post. Doh!
posted by sabbydarling at 9:35 AM on May 5, 2001

Bloomfield, the patron saint of the true student minority.
posted by wantwit at 9:39 AM on May 5, 2001

wantwit, are you suggesting that honest students are in the minority? If so, I don't believe that's true at all. Given that maybe I took that wrong, I'm going to hold back...
posted by fusinski at 9:48 AM on May 5, 2001

Well, some people cheat and lie and kiss ass in college, some people do the same at the office. tough sh**. It's pretty naive, I think, to imagine that college is some kind of some sacred, PC island of pure learning and complete honesty. And anyway some guys just HAVE to cheat in college -- because high school education is so pathetic that some students don't even learn how to read. It doesn't take Allan Bloom to figure that out.
posted by matteo at 10:25 AM on May 5, 2001

So if a guy gets a pathetic high school education & somehow gets admitted into a college, he then gains the right to cheat his way to a degree because he didn't learn anything in high school? If his high school education was so bad, there are some pretty remedial college courses he can take to bring himself up to par.. sure he may not graduate in four years, but at least he'll actually KNOW something. Then again, I suppose someone who can coast through school & college in that way would probably be the same person who'd be content to coast through life not knowing anything anyway.
posted by zempf at 10:30 AM on May 5, 2001

zempf wrote:
I suppose someone who can coast through school & college in that way would probably be the same person who'd be content to coast through life not knowing anything anyway.
It's exactly my point, zempf. I'm not saying it's a good thing, but we all see people like that, every day, maybe at work, don't we?
posted by matteo at 10:38 AM on May 5, 2001

Here's a site that does sort of the same thing: Digital Integrity. Its index is a little locked in time, but it works pretty well.

And, yes, plagiarism is rampant, and the way I know this is because the people who are stupid enough to plagiarize are also stupid enough to talk about it. Even Ivy League students (or maybe especially Ivy League students, considering the higher-than-average pressure to succeed, sense of entitlement, feelings of invincibility and superiority, etc.). What cracks me up the most is that plagiarizers act like they've got some kind of unique knowledge of how to search the web, as if their profs can't do that. False security by false obscurity, I guess. Or worse, they use material off of university-provided databases, like JSTOR, MUSE or Lexis-Nexis, which profs use all the time in their own research: they're current in their fields, they read the journals, they know what's been done.

I've edited other people's papers and the plagiarized passages stick out, usually, because they show an elegance in writing or relevance that the rest of the paper is lacking.

And tiaka, I dunno where you went to school, but a half hour to write a paper? Are you kidding? I'm in the middle of my second straight *day* writing a paper, all day, 10 hours, including doing research in the library. And that's typical for me. And it's only a ten-pager. (Fortunately, Metafilter is there as a diversion when my excitement in writing about 13 June 1849 and the tail-end of the 1848 French Revolution wears off...)
posted by Mo Nickels at 10:38 AM on May 5, 2001

In the short term, these 122 students will be pissed off at their prof, the school, life, etc. But if any are worth their salt, they'll take it as a big lesson and grow from the experience.

And most won't, which is why they were the types of people that thought they were entitled to cheat through it.
posted by jragon at 10:55 AM on May 5, 2001

matteo: if you think that college is just preparation for Dilbert officedom, then encouraging plagiarism's fine. But the academy, like it or not, is established with higher aims. Perhaps there ought to be a division between "copying" and "non-copying" establishments?
posted by holgate at 11:10 AM on May 5, 2001

Mo wrote,
I'm in the middle of my second straight *day* writing a paper, all day, 10 hours...

Yeah I am supposed to write a 7 page long paper for a stupid writing class and it requires some research, even though I picked an easy topic, it will take me atleast 4 - 5 hours to finish it.
posted by riffola at 11:14 AM on May 5, 2001

You know I just realised that services like (with all it's copy and paste features) won't quite help if the paper is going to be graded and compared by a program.
posted by riffola at 11:18 AM on May 5, 2001

Wow! 2 days to write a 10 pager? We had to turn out 10-15 pagers in 1 day all the time at my school...;-)

In college, I served on an organization that oversaw "honor code violations" and such -- the amount of cheating reported was surprisingly low. For a student body of roughly 2000, I think we came across 10 potential cases per semester. The cases were reported by the profs for the most part...

After that experience, I am certain that either students have become exceptionally good at not getting caught/profs aren't catching them OR most students don't really cheat. I tend to agree with the latter.
posted by kphaley454 at 11:20 AM on May 5, 2001

?l? people cheat and lie and kiss ass in college, some people do the same at the office.

No kidding. My boss at my old job, who got hired after me, was asked to do a presentation at her job interview. She plagarized the whole thing. I found her out, I was told to shut up and deal with it, and she was a pretty awful manager. I quit, but she's still there, because no one would fire her for her dishonesty. I will always believe that it is wrong to pass someone else's work off as your own, whether it's in college, in the workplace, or anywhere. While I think this UVA's professor's program is good, I think it's a little upsetting that it's even necessary in the first place. The level of dishonesty that some people will sink to is really awful.
posted by amyscoop at 11:38 AM on May 5, 2001

"if you think that college is just preparation for Dilbert officedom, then encouraging plagiarism's fine. But the academy, like it or not, is established with higher aims. "

I guess for most schools these higher aims involve a winning sports team full of of braindead thugs who are given a free ride financially and scholastically in exchange for their brawn. I'm not sure we should sing the praises of the modern university.
posted by tcobretti at 11:40 AM on May 5, 2001

Kphaley, smaller school means smaller classes means students aren't numbers means prof to student ratio is like 10:1 means more progressive honor code. that fact doesn't surprise...especially for a small liberal arts college. but nonetheless combine laziness with anonymity (basically) and high bandwidth and these things are going to happen. note to large universities: want to cut down on plagiarism? cut down on the internet and use lots of TAs. make them do it old school...really old school.

but the fact is the university is getting paid whether or not they pass, the system breeds this crap. face it.
posted by wantwit at 11:50 AM on May 5, 2001

I agree, I'd be uneasy singing the praises of the modern university.
College IS preparation for officedom, basically. One's love of books, of paintings, or museums doesn't really start in college, and has very little to do with college. i.e., there's plenty of ignorant people with a degree (yes, even some Ivy-Leaguers). and so many smart, well-read, well-informed people don't have a college degree at all.
posted by matteo at 12:13 PM on May 5, 2001

I just noticed the lengthy list of top stories on the left. Why does Wired do this? Who scrolls down that far and clicks those links?

It's Saturday, I feel like complaining.
posted by perplexed at 12:24 PM on May 5, 2001

See, the difference between the deeply broken British university system, and the deeply broken American one, is that we still regard universities as educational establishments. Or at least, it's been a while since the rowers and the rugby players did silly courses on "land management" or the Dip.Soc.

matteo: let me put it this way. Do you think that those who teach in universities regard their colleges as finishing schools for management consultancy? Perhaps they're the odd minority -- after all, they've turned down the world of the office -- but in the context of this story, they're the ones who matter. University teachers are, from experience, engaged in a kind of missionary work, to recruit more university teachers; you can hardly expect them to declare the Enlightenment notion of a liberal education a sham.
posted by holgate at 12:37 PM on May 5, 2001

there are exceptions here in the states though to what you are saying, holgate. i might point out University of Chicago as a major exception to the the typical American "university system".
posted by wantwit at 12:41 PM on May 5, 2001

Off topic:

When I took a Medieval Literature class in college, we had to write four papers over the course of the term. I handed in my first paper on time and got an A, but a lot of people were late with their papers, and the professor made the mistake of saying, "I don't care if they're late as long as I have all your papers by 5:00 on Monday of finals week." Oh boy.

I was having kind of a tough semester (not unusual for me), so I did most of the reading, but didn't start on any of the last three papers. When the Saturday evening before finals week rolled around, I still had three papers to write and one of them had to be on the Morte d'Arthur, which I had not yet begun to read and which is not a short work. I wrote a draft of a paper on The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, read half of the Morte d'Arthur, wrote a draft of a paper on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, read the last half of the Morte d'Arthur, wrote a draft of a paper on it, and then sanded and polished the drafts into papers. I also slept.

Ladies and gentlemen, this was before the days of word processing. I walked into the professor's office at 3:30 on Monday and gave him the papers. Much to my chagrin, I only got an A- and two B+'s, but all my friends thought those grades were pretty good under the circumstances.

On topic:

It would never have occurred to me to copy my papers from someone else. Partly because I'm very honest and it would have been wrong, but also because I wouldn't trust anyone else's work to speak for me.

Academic honor violations are very serious matters, and they should be punished severely. I wonder whether UVa will really expel all these people, or if they'll find some way to weasel out of it, claiming, perhaps, that the evidence of cheating was not definitive.

Academic violations are one area where punishment really does have a strong deterrent effect. If students see their friends expelled, they'll buckle down and write the papers themselves. In the real world, employers don't care all that much how good your grades were, but they do care that you graduated.
posted by anapestic at 1:01 PM on May 5, 2001

> Now if only the computer science professors would start
> doing this sort of thing for code...

There's hope, Fusinski; some profs do.

Campfire horror story time! Once, there was a young(er) college kid named (for the purpose of this story) Cortex. Cortex was by and large a good kid, and an able (if not always self-motivated) student. He did enough of his homework to pass most of the classes he didn't like, and usually threw himself into the classes he enjoyed.

One day, though, Cortex was in a hurry and worried about a homework assignment he hadn't gotten done. In a last-minute moment of panic and poor judgement, he nudged a friend to let him "borrow" and modify that friend's finished version of the assignment. Not being completely dense, Cortex had the good sense to change variable names and some white-space conventions in the code before turning it in as his own. Certainly, he thought, no one would glance at these two assignments and think anything was amiss.

Horror of horrors, his professor had more in mind for her students' assignments than a quick glance. Through some unspecified voodoo (this storyteller would guess that, knowing the professor's admirable literacy with various computer systems and penchent for LISP dialects, the magic probably revolved around a clever Scheme app with shades of grep and diff), the professor managed to identify the misdealings of the unfortunate Cortex.

Lucky for Cortex, the professor made no great bureaucratic huff about the incident -- one that, apparently, wasn't unique to Cortex -- and let things be with a stern note and a zero on the assignment.

Cortex has, since then, managed to get through the rest of his school work more ethically, and will be (Registrar willing) be dressed in a gown and shaking hands with the Dean in a couple weeks.

No animals were harmed in the filming of this anecdote.
posted by cortex at 1:02 PM on May 5, 2001

wantwit -- I agree that the numbers can play a role (I also attended a large university before arriving at the decidedly more expensive confines of my liberal arts alma mater). However, the "honor system" was student-run, student-enforced, student-everything. The profs' role in the honor system was as "sometimes policeman," but for the most part, I encountered students who generally took the concept of the honor code to heart.

Perhaps it's a matter of culture (for SEVERE lack of a better word), in that the culture I experienced was different at a particular large school, just as the German universities I attended were different, just as the small, expensive liberal arts school was different -- in a roundabout way, I'm saying that the numbers are 1 part, but the attitude/spirit/geist of the school plays a large, if not dominant role in how students regard cheating and plagiarism. I don't think "likelihood to cheat" comes down to a matter of numbers...

Convoluted enough? Must return to my sun-dozing...
posted by kphaley454 at 2:00 PM on May 5, 2001

kphaley- i agree. perfectly convoluted! but you must admit there *can* be quite a difference between the student bodies of so-called German research universities and liberal arts schools. I suppose that was a point I was thinking but never reached the keys on this beautiful weekend.
posted by wantwit at 2:47 PM on May 5, 2001

I warn my students at the beginning of each term that I use the web to ferret out plagiarism. I also warn them that in the past I've failed at least one student a term for plagiarism. They still do it -- brazenly and stupidly. One referred to the local "county," even though we're in Canada. Another left all the trademark symbols in a news release that he'd copied. Some people don't even try to find on-topic pieces to copy, and submit a few thousand plagiarized words on anything.

The feeling of entitlement (to copy a phrase from one of these other posts) is what frustrates me most. They're busy or new to computers or sad, so cheating is okay.

The crazy thing is that I teach in a certficate program with marshmallow-light standards. The only way to fail these courses without dropping out is to cheat.
posted by Yogurt at 3:10 PM on May 5, 2001

While I was a graduate student, a professor in the same engineering dept. detected a problem with undergraduates "sharing" their CAD assignments. His remedy was interesting in that he downgraded the owner of the original work as well as failing the plagarist. Problem very soon solved.
posted by normy at 6:22 PM on May 5, 2001

cheating is cheating.

i dont want:
- an accountant doing my taxes who cheated her way to his degree.

- a surgeon operating on me who cheated his way through med school.

- a lawyer defending me who cheated his way through the bar.

- a psychologist helping me who cheated her way to her sheepskin.

etc., etc., etc.

if you cheated, you didn't learn it. if you didn't learn it, you don't know it.

if you don't know what you are doing, stay the hell away from me.
posted by bwg at 9:53 PM on May 5, 2001

anapestic said:
I wouldn't trust anyone else's work to speak for me

{off topic}
i am in the draft stage of a paper that was due a week ago, and feeling rather apathetic about it despite the hefty chunk of grade it represents. i have thought numerous times over the past week about surfing the high-number google pages for something decent, but this point of pride is something i cannot get over.

i attend a university and am enrolled in a college that both take the honor code very seriously. on almost all assignments i am required to make a statement of virtue that the work is mine, and mine alone. truthfully, it feels soooo good when i write those statements {and they're true}. a quick fix for a paper is nothing compared to the pride i feel over my job well-done.

{on topic}
the program sounds good, and is surely beneficial to honest, hardworking students. as has been said before, though, it's sad that it's needed in the first place.
posted by carsonb at 10:01 PM on May 5, 2001 [1 favorite]

bwg: interesting that all the examples you cite are professions that require either a graduate degree or some other institutional qualification in order to practise. It's as if (shock horror) a basic college degree doesn't mean that much when it comes to qualifying you for the job at hand...
posted by holgate at 5:45 AM on May 6, 2001

Look: I know there are a lot of people who have gone through the K-12 system without learning anything; colleges, however, have remedial courses to make up for this. A bit. But this isn't my places to go off on my "God damn English classes where we watch movies and make posters" rant. The point is, don't allow them to continue not learning anything! The way to do that is... make them do their work! Not copy others. I think serious cases of plagiarism should result in being expelled.

Of course, I happen to believe you go to college to learn stuff, not to get a degree, not so you can get a higher-paying job. Silly me.

Besides, I'd be pissed if someone spent five minutes copying a paper when I spent days of toil working on one. I'm annoyed enough that no one puts any effort into their work anyway, even if they do write something "original," though they might not get really good grades, they're probably good enough to get them positions as high school English teachers even when they admit an inability to understand literature, read texts from previous centuries, etc.
posted by dagnyscott at 8:14 AM on May 6, 2001

> if you cheated, you didn't learn it. if you didn't learn it, you don't
> know it.

bwg, I tend to agree with your sentiment, but I don't think the above really follows. If you cheated, you didn't *do the work*. What that says about what you have or haven't learned depends wholly on the context.

As far as my campfire story goes, the issue wasn't what was learned, but what was done. The fact is that I had kept up to date on the material -- I really was enjoying the class -- but had spent the previous night playing Quake or {insert time-wasting activity here} instead of coding. When it came down to the wire, I wasn't physically capable of banging out 50 lines of LISP in 5 minutes, regardless of the fact that I knew what I was doing in general.

Maybe this is a more reasonable statement: If you cheated, you didn't do the work. If you didn't do the work, you don't have direct proof that you learned.

The thing is, I've turned in countless brainless assignments before -- busy work bullshit (and this *includes* a couple courses taken at WPI) that doesn't require knowledge so much as regurgitation and hoop-jumping -- and learned nothing despite having tackled the job ethically.

So, yeah. Cheating is bad insofar as it's a breach of contract/code, and it's undesirable because it throws a wrench in the gears of *good* academic measures of learning, but cheating is not necessarily a sign of academic unworth or poor learning habits.
posted by cortex at 8:48 AM on May 6, 2001

There's also They'll scan the internet for possible sources of academic "work".

Really the best counter to this is a careful examination of the student's previous work. Is the voice similar? Is the subject, the approach within previous indicators? But most profs don't have that kind of time.
posted by dhartung at 9:27 AM on May 6, 2001

(Incidentally, for whatever reason,'s logo is oddly ... plagiaristically? ... similar to Ameritech's ...
posted by dhartung at 9:30 AM on May 6, 2001

Really the best counter to this is a careful examination of the student's previous work. Is the voice similar? Is the subject, the approach within previous indicators? But most profs don't have that kind of time.

In my experience, most instructors absolutely do expend that kind of effort -- it's precisely those indicators that send them looking for concrete evidence of plagiarism. As the end of a semester approaches (like now), I get several emails from instructors in my department who suspect plagiarism on the grounds you mention, and are looking for corroboration and help in tracking down the original. Everyone seems acutely aware of how the work shown in each assignment relates to a student's previous work; that's important not just in spying out instances of cheating, but in evaluating the student's progress, noting what elements of the coursework were successful and which weren't, and so on. Since an accusation of plagiarism is so serious, one generally wants to investigate as thoroughly as possible after making the subjective judgment.
posted by redfoxtail at 9:48 AM on May 6, 2001

> interesting that all the examples you cite are professions that require either a graduate degree or some other institutional qualification in order to practise.

granted, holgate. but if they achieve a basic degree by cheating, God knows what they'll do to get the graduate degree.

i'd hate to have to depend on someone who cuts corners.
posted by bwg at 11:02 AM on May 6, 2001

fusinki: actually, when I was taking CS courses at my University (before I left), the Prof made it clear that they had software that detected whether ppl's work was plagiarized or not. In all honesty, it's really not that hard to compare, and I think it's good they did that.
posted by ookamaka at 12:04 AM on May 7, 2001

I think this raises interesting questions. Being a college student (just finished today), I know first-hand how rampant cheating is in school. The problem can't be solved with catching college students who have been cheating for 12 years. Most of my teachers in elementary school and high school ignored cheating if it wasn't blatant. A zero tolerance policy can't teach if no one had enforced it before. It is akin to making any crime a capital offense, and my personal opinion is that capital punishment is not a successful deterrent. However, with the proliferation of sources on the internet it is necessary for the attitude toward honesty be changed in order to guarantee that cheating will be avoided.
posted by wsfinkel at 4:11 PM on May 7, 2001

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