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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Copied Word

A Shot of Arts
A Shot of Arts

You’ve done it. Everybody does it. Even if they don’t intentionally do it, they more than likely did it by accident. Last week, “The Boston Globe” caught Ron Borges doing it, and he does it professionally. “The Harvard Crimson” caught undergrad Kaavya Viswanathan doing it, and that was for an entire book.

No matter how you slice it, everybody cheats, and because of the Internet, cheating on academic papers has become a major issue on every American college campus. But even if cheating remains prevalent to college life, students have no qualms admitting to their offenses. According a national survey of students published in “Education Week,” 54 percent confessed to plagiarizing from the Internet, 74 percent admitted to “serious” cheating at least once within the past school year and 47 percent of students feel that their teachers know but sometimes choose to ignore these unscrupulous deeds.

Well, that may no longer be the case at UMass Boston. Starting in the spring 2007 semester, UMass Boston will partake in a trial run of a program called Turnitin, found on the website Turnitin.com. The gist of Turnitin is that teachers can electronically upload students’ papers to a database, which will then compare the submitted text to proprietary and subscription databases, the Internet, a database of student papers submitted from other schools subscribing to Turnitin and a database of papers previously submitted at UMass Boston. After the program compares your paper with millions of other papers found in the database, the teacher will then receive an originality report. The originality report will indicate textual matches for the teacher to survey, but the program itself in no way determines if a student plagiarized that paper.

Janet Dipaolo, Coordinator of Healey Library Instruction, and Frances Schlesinger, Healey’s Electronic Resources Librarian, are managing the effort, as well as tutorials, to bring Turnitin to UMass Boston. Both know how involved teachers will need to be in order to spot plagiarism. “Will Turnitin point out plagiarism? Well, no,” Dipaolo said. “What Turnitin does is it will show you matches, but it is up to the faculty to make the final decision.”

One problem the faculty will face in using Turnitin is that, for enough money, students will still be able to forgo getting caught. Turnitin searches the entire Internet for plagiarized texts, yet the program remains incapable of scouring paid-subscription websites. Also, this is not going to prevent students from going the old-fashioned route of paying actual people to do their work for them.

“There are free paper mills, and so all of those free paper mills on the web, Turnitin picks up,” Schlessinger said. “But think of all those other subscription or pay paper-mills where students pay 50 bucks a pop for a paper, those will not be picked up by Turnitin.”

The only helping UMass Boston to prevent students from going to pay-for websites is that while Turnitin cannot access their entire papers from those sites, it is still able to read and compare from those same papers’ first pages. Pay-for sites advertise the papers they sell by displaying the first page, and that way students can see if that paper has anything to do with their assigned work. So while Turnitin cannot access entire papers from pay-for sites, it can scan and compare from the advertised first pages of papers on those very same sites.

Another thing to consider is that you may not be the only person buying that paper from that pay-site, and there is no way to know that a paper you bought was not also bought and turned in by a college student in Oregon; in which case, your purchased work will come up on Turnitin’s database. The only way for a student to avoid getting caught in this scenario would be the unlikely chance that the other student’s school subscribed to the site, but did not make their own students’ works available for other schools to reference.

UMass Boston has followed the lead from UMass Amherst, and taken this very step to prevent any sort of copyright infringement within the student body. “The UMass Boston student papers are following the example of UMass Amherst, and our papers are considered a separate note,” Schlesinger said. “So, somebody from California cannot compare their student papers against our student papers, but our student papers absolutely can be compared against theirs.”

Faculty members are curious to the idea of UMass Boston using Turnitin, and have suggested other ways that the website might prevent cheating in the future. One idea is simply to use the syllabus to inform students of the program, hoping that alone will prevent any future plagiarism. “That statement alone in the syllabus deters plagiarism,” Dipaolo said.