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Jul 30, 2008


A happy week was completely ruined by plagiarism cases I discovered in my graduate class. I don't really know why, but it always makes me very upset. Somehow, it always feels like I failed, too. No matter how many times I warn students, and how explicitly the policy is stated on my syllabus, it still feels yucky, like when you see someone stealing. I might be just grumpy today, but it really is unpleasant to be deceived. I am sure those of you who ever was deceived or robbed remember the feeling of being violated. It is not the stuff or money that you miss, but your own sense of… I don't know, cleanliness?

Why students do it, I am not entirely sure. I don't remember having any inclination or temptation of cheating when I was a student, so it is hard for me to relate. Partly, it just became very easy to do. The instant access to information means instant, effortless stealing opportunity. I don't believe for a minute that students now are less honest than before. In the past, it simply took too much effort to plagiarize. One had to go to a library, find a book, re-type some text. Plagiarism is usually a cope-out for people who are insecure, stressed, and overcommitted. Dishonest, too. But because they are also short on time, effort makes a lot of difference. Old plagiarism was less harmful, because simply retyping text made the offender learn something. Copying and pasting teaches one nothing except for the skill of copying and pasting.

Of course, professors can fight back, and that is what we should do. If we don't, we may as well just sell the diplomas; we are no better than snake oil sellers. As objective standardized tests are used less and less frequently, we must make sure the performance-based assessment is not compromised, or we will run into deep trouble. Unopposed, plagiarism will ruin higher education in no time, because no link between credentials and competence will remain. So, this is a call to arms.

As a first step, ask your students to submit a file even if you prefer to grade hard copies. We should try to check very paper for every class.

  • Open a blank file, go to Insert, Object, Text from file. Then select all files student submitted, and insert them all at once. You will get a huge, hundreds of pages file. Of course, you can do it with individual files, if they look suspicious.
  • Then go to ANY shell of Blackboard, Control Panel, and click on SafeAssign.
  • After that, click on Direct Submit, and then on Submit papers button.
  • Once you submit, give it several minutes to work its magic. It will produce a report that will begin with something like this:
  • Click on all instances of plagiarism (they are numbered in little green circles), and on Highlight All, and then manually recheck. Sometimes a student uses legitimate quotes, and the system does not know it. However, it also finds real instances, even if a few words are changed to conceal plagiarism. It is important to re-check manually though, to avoid false accusations.

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