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e-cheating:  Combating a 21st Century Challenge 

By Kim McMurtry
T. H. E. Journal November 2001

Combating e-cheating

The ease of finding and downloading papers from sites like these makes plagiarism very tempting. How can an instructor combat e-cheating? I have eight suggestions:

    1. Take time to explain and discuss your academic honesty policy. Most colleges and universities have academic integrity policies in place to discourage cheating. And plagiarism is also a legal issue, as attorney Ronald Standler explains: "Any work created in the USA after March 1, 1989, is automatically protected by copyright, even if there is no copyright notice attached to the work," and "the owner of the copyright ... could sue the plagiarist in federal court." In addition, some states have statutes against the sale of a "term paper, essay, report, thesis or dissertation" to students (Standler 2000).
    2. Design writing assignments with specific goals and instructions. Most college courses require at least one written assignment with a research component. Don't assign a general paper like, "Write a five-page paper on anything related to the course, using at least five sources." Give specific instructions. Determine what your goal is for the student writing that research paper, and give the student a purpose for writing and an audience to write to. Limit the topics the student may write about. Require the format and documentation style used in your discipline. Be specific about length and the number of sources required. Encourage higher-order thinking rather than easily obtainable plot summaries and character analyses. The more specific your assignment is, the more difficult it will be for the potential plagiarist to find a paper online that fits the assignment. And if the cheating student still tries to take shortcuts and turn in a downloaded paper, you will probably be tipped off by something that doesn't fit. For example, in a freshman composition class I assigned a five-page research paper with a five-source requirement. One student downloaded an article from an online magazine and turned it in. Not only was the paper superbly written - beyond the skill level of that student -but it also cited 20 sources, which is not likely for any student on a five-page paper.
    3. Know what's available online before assigning a paper. If you're thinking of having your students research the John F. Kennedy assassination, take a few minutes to see what your students might find online. Check out a few of the Web paper mills as well as a search engine or two. Remember, many papers are available just as Web pages by students wanting to display their work, by teachers displaying student work or even by teachers providing sample papers for their students. In addition, there are many full-text magazines and journals available online, and students may also be tempted to download articles to turn in, as one of my students did. This is the lesson I learned after my first year of teaching freshman composition. In the second semester of composition, my students get an introduction to interpreting and writing about literature. Students read several short stories and choose one to write about. Out of 61 students, five decided to turn in papers downloaded from the Internet. I was easily tipped off when two students submitted identical essays, each not realizing that the other had also copied the paper from the Internet. I discovered, after the fact, that there are numerous essays available online on William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily, Kate Chopin's The Story of an Hour and Eudora Welty's A Worn Path. The following year I changed the assignment. I chose a more recent novel for the students to read, Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, did some online searching and determined that it would be sufficiently difficult for a student to find any prewritten essays on it.
    4. Give students enough time to do an assignment. Keep in mind that students are juggling assignments in several classes. Help them plan their work by giving them enough advance notice of any assignment that requires research. You might even consider requiring that students submit a research proposal, an outline, an annotated bibliography or at least a topic idea early on. Students who have put off starting an assignment until the last minute are more likely to seek shortcuts, like plagiarism.
    5. Require oral presentations of student papers or have students submit a letter of transferal to you, explaining briefly their thesis statement, research process, etc. Both of these tasks will discourage plagiarism.
    6. Have students submit essays electronically. Whether via e-mail, to a shared directory on the campus network or on a diskette, this provides the opportunity for you to archive your students' essays electronically. Keep them organized in directories according to the assigned topic. Then, you can feel confident about assigning the same topics each semester or each year. If a student paper sounds familiar, simply do a word or a phrase search on that directory. For example, one student submitted a personal essay on her experience transferring from a large, state institution to a small, private college. The next year, when another student submitted the same essay, I immediately recognized it and was able to perform a search of my essay archive using the essay's first sentence and located it quickly.
    7. When you suspect e-cheating, use a free full-text search engine like AltaVista or Digital Integrity ( If a submitted paper doesn't sound like that student, doesn't seem to fit the course level or doesn't seem to fit the assignment, take a phrase from the paper or the title of the paper and type it into a search engine. Or, if the student provides Web addresses as source citations, check them out. Sometimes, a student who has downloaded a paper from the Internet will actually provide that Web address in the list of works cited.
    8. Consider subscribing to a plagiarism search service, like or IntegriGuard. For example, compares a student's text to its database of papers as well as to Internet databases and Web pages, providing a report highlighting exact phrase matches and links to the matching pages. The annual fee for this service is $150, plus $1 per document, purchased in $50 blocks. provides a free trial service of five documents, so at least try it out. IntegriGuard ( offers two ways of combating plagiarism. Its site works just like's service: submit a paper, it compares it to its database of papers as well as to Web searches and provides a report showing any matching phrases it finds. IntegriGuard also offers a $4.95 per month service through its site. The instructor pays the monthly fee, and all of the instructor's students submit their own papers to the site. These papers get added to IntegriGuard's paper database, and the instructor receives an e-mail report if it detects that any of the papers have been plagiarized. I also routinely use because it's free and I have found it effective. E-cheating is quick, easy and very tempting for students. I encourage educators to be aware of the possibilities and do what they can to help students maintain academic integrity.

To Cheat or Not to Cheat...

Here are some quotes from college students that exemplify the problem, as reported in (Kleiner and Lord 1999):

    • After lifting a paper from the Web and turning it in, a student at the University of Alabama said: "I realize that it's wrong, but I don't feel bad about it, either, partly because I know everyone else is doing it." -
    • And after copying a friend's programming assignment and turning it in, a student at Duke University said: "... there are times that you cheat because there aren't enough hours in the day. ... I understood how to do it; I just didn't have the time."


    • Bushweller, Kevin. 1999. "Generation of Cheaters." The American School Board Journal, April. November 2001
    • Kleiner, Carolyn, and Mary Lord. 1999. "The Cheating Game: Everyone's Doing It,' From Grade School to Graduate School." U.S. News & World Report, November 2, 55-66.
    • Lupton, Robert A., Kenneth J. Chapman and John E. Weiss. "A Cross-National Exploration of Business Students' Attitudes, Perceptions, and Tendencies Toward Academic Dishonesty." Journal of Education for Business, 75 (4): 231-235.
    • Renard, Lisa. "Cut and Paste 101: Plagiarism and the Net." Educational Leadership, 57 (4): 38-42.
    • Standler, Ronald B. 2000. Plagiarism in Colleges in USA. Online: .

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