A recent article in our local paper detailed an experiment with online essay mills. Duke University professor Dan Ariely provided four mills a bogus essay assignment and payment. Some of the essays he received in return included completely incomprehensible text; two were heavily plagiarized. Ironically, the writing quality in each of them was awful. Cheaters never prosper, or so the saying goes.
As a college Freshman Composition II adjunct, I’ve had a surprising number of “cut and paste” cheaters. Fortunately, the college makes a plagiarism checker available. It provides a report with percent of text matches and links to web sites with identical text. When confronted, students generally swear they’re innocent. “I’ve never heard of that web site,” they say. I politely respond, “The source you used may have
plagiarized this one, or vice versa, but it simply isn’t believable that you and this author both came up with the exact same word combination for such a large block of text.”
The most recent incident was more likely an essay purchase or favor from a “friend.” When I called the student aside to show him text flagged by the plagiarism checker–his entire introduction had been copied verbatim–he was confused. “I don’t understand,” he kept saying, as I showed him the report and the originating web site. Finally, he asked to be excused while he went into the hall with his cell phone. I’m guessing he called the essay’s true author, to ream him or her out over selling him a cut-and-paste paper.
The problem isn’t limited to college students, either. I’ve a had a couple incidents in my junior English class as well. These tend to be easier to detect with a simple Google search for a sentence written in language that is clearly more sophisticated than the student’s typical writing. It’s not foolproof, and some minor cheating undoubtedly goes undetected, but the best defense seems to be ferreting out younger cheaters.
The most troubling case happened about a year ago in my college class. The young lady involved was pleasant and conscientious. She participated in class, turned in several well-written essays, and only missed a couple of class sessions. She was an “A” student. When her last essay was flagged, it pointed to another student’s essay as the original. “That’s my sister,” she said, when asked if she knew the other student. “She helped me with my essay.” The “help” was simply too flagrant to ignore, however. She contested the zero I gave her, but it was upheld. In the end, I told her, “One of the benefits of a college education is learning to think for yourself, and it seems you just wasted one opportunity to do so.”
Dishonesty and learning simply don’t mix. If cheating students can be convinced that they’re cheating themselves out of learning opportunities, then they will have learned something truly valuable.