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Beating Web cheaters at their own game

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It's an issue older than Socrates, one that tests the temptations of anonymity and decisions that are made at night and alone.

Cheating on schoolwork has simmered on as long as there have been students averse to studying. But the age of the Internet has woven a host of new twists on the perennial problem of plagiarism.

Websites offer instant access to thousands of student papers - for free, or custom-written for as little as $5 per page, or an infinite supply through lifetime memberships. Meanwhile, to many students, cheating is no big deal. A 1998 poll of top US high school students revealed that 80 percent had cheated - and 95 percent of those said they'd escaped detection.

It's enough to make schools start thinking hard about preemptive strikes. But in a culture in which copying without permission is as easy as MP3, the parameters of intellectual property are tricky - and raise new questions about where to draw the line between student trust and student freedom.

"Kids could cut and paste their way through high school if they wanted to," says Glenn Whitman, chairman of the history department at St. Andrew's Episcopal School, an independent day school in Potomac, Md. "One of my qualms about research now is that students immediately run to the Internet and see it as their savior for researching."

Last year, St. Andrew's went on the offensive. The school purchased Turnitin.com, an online service that compares student papers to a vast database of Internet documents. A suspect paper is scanned for similarities and returned with matching passages highlighted - accompanied by websites where the sources can be found.

This fall, St. Andrew's will require students to hand in every research paper in digital form as well as hard copy, to allow for easy scanning.

Anne Masciuch, head librarian and academic technology coordinator at St. Andrew's, led a series of workshops last year on plagiarism, and found that as teachers learned more, they became increasingly anxious.

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