May 1, 2002

Professors React to Plagiarism

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Since the start of the academic year, Cornell has joined thousands of other schools as a client of, a web-based service to check student papers for plagiarized material. employs a new technology known as document source analysis to make a “digital fingerprint” of the submitted paper. This is then compared with information on the Internet as well as their own extensive database of submitted materials, which have been coded in a similar fashion.

Within 24 hours, returns an edited copy of the paper, indicating instances of replication or obvious paraphrasing, complete with source links, to the teacher who originally submitted the paper.

According to Prof. Isaac Kramnick, government, the vice provost for undergraduate education, many professors are reluctant to pursue suspicions of plagiarism because it is often a long and hard process to prove. But with the advent of new anti-plagiarism services, such as, catching students is easier.

“What Internet gives in terms of potential for plagiarism, it takes away by providing technology to discover [plagiarized material] more easily,” Kramnick said.

Although plagiarism has always been a problem, it has been intensified by the technology of the Internet. More than ever, the ease of downloading material and the simple cut and paste commands have made cheating easier for students.

“Internet has changed everything. It is very tempting for students to plagiarize,” Kramnick said.

Prof. James Shanahan, communications, added, “Nowadays, the [plagiarized] material comes more frequently from the web.”

Rob Chen ’04 also agreed that plagiarism has increased.

“The Internet has made it easier for students to just cut and paste ideas from other people and I think it is a definite problem at Cornell,” he said.

Students generally agreed that professors are within their rights to use such websites to check for plagiarized material.

“Professors have the right to use the websites if they have a reason to suspect that the student plagiarized. It is their right to know the truth,” Joyelle Lee ’04 said.

However, Alvin Chan ’02 noted, “It’s fine [to use the websites] but you better make sure those devices work. And how are you going to distinguish between what is original and what is similar?”

But even without the use of anti-plagiarism services, professors often can recognize plagiarized material quite easily because the sophistication of writing is above the level of most undergraduate students.

“I just don’t think students understand how easy it is for professors to recognize plagiarism,” said Prof. Mary Beth Norton, history.

There are also more “traditional” problems of plagiarism. According to Kramnick, fraternities keep files of papers for students to use as their own. Norton also added that many students “swap” papers amongst friends from year to year.

In order to prevent plagiarism of other students’ papers, Norton asks her students to turn in two copies of each submitted paper. She keeps one copy of all the past papers students have turned in so current students will not be able to use them as their own. Norton also assigns a series of preliminary assignments that lead up to the term paper, making it harder for students to plagiarize.

Kramnick also stated that some students believe that it is allowable to copy material from the Internet but not from a book. He noted the importance of addressing the misunderstanding as well as teaching students how to properly cite material from the Internet.

Although there is a problem of plagiarism, Kramnick said, “professors trust the students. They assume that the students did not plagiarize.”

Shanahan added, “I always give the student the benefit of the doubt. That is, I don’t go out looking for plagiarists. If something in a paper makes me suspicious, then I’ll start searching. So, I wouldn’t use software to routinely search every paper.”

In regards to the other side of the professor-student relationship, Norton feels the students should also respect their professors.

“I feel betrayed if students plagiarize. It betrays the relationship we had over the semester that constituted trust and respect. I take it personally,” Norton said.

Archived article by Joann Kang