For students who wait till the last minute to start their term papers, plagiarism today doesn't even require cracking open an encyclopedia.
Need a paper on the Cuban Missile Crisis? Done, for $10 a page. Want it custom made? Add another $5 per page. Just go to sleep and it'll be in your inbox by morning.
Since the Internet became readily accessible to students in the 1990s, it has become in some ways the educator's worst enemy. In secondary schools and universities alike, students are taking advantage of the fact that ready-made papers are only a few clicks away. An entire industry has sprung up to provide free homework or - at a price - papers purported to be custom-made.
But now teachers are fighting back. Across the country, educators have become savvier about using a combination of in-class writing samples, Internet search engines, and antiplagiarism technology to beat the cheating scourge.
For schools that choose the low-tech way to fight plagiarism, taking in-class writing samples is one of the easiest solutions. Teachers simply ask students to write a few paragraphs, which they hand in immediately. This gives a teacher some way of assessing ability and knowing if a graduate-level paper could really have been written by a high-school student or undergraduate with shaky prose.
But for suspicions that are harder to prove, many schools are turning to technological solutions like Turnitin. The on-line tool, created by iParadigms of Oakland, Calif., in 1998, searches the Internet as well as millions of publications for copied passages as short as eight words. It scans papers against material it has collected from professors to check papers against one another and see if any two students have plagiarized from the same site. The service costs about 60 cents per student each school year.
"You can no longer cheat your way to a degree," says John Barrie, president and CEO of iParadigms.
At schools that haven't invested in technology like Turnitin, teachers are developing their own strategies for detecting plagiarism. In 3-1/2 years of teaching English at Brooklyn College, Damian Da Costa caught two to three students each year by searching for phrases from their papers with Google.com.
He issued warnings to the students whose cheating he couldn't prove.
"It's a problem when students buy papers and you can't really point to what they plagiarized from but you know that they did plagiarize, in which case you're kind of in a bind," he says.
Some schools, like the exclusive Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, prefer to concentrate on instilling a powerful ethical code in their students.
Elisabeth Tully, the director of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library at the Academy, focuses more on plagiarism prevention than punishment, pointing out that schools must be vigilant about ensuring that students understand what plagiarism is and how they can avoid it.
"It's not even so much that they're cutting and pasting electronic stuff," she says. "They may have handwritten something out of a book, but if they didn't at the time assign a source code and put the right quotations around it, they might make a mistake and inadvertently plagiarize."
Despite antiplagiarism efforts, however, some educators are discouraged by the development of what appears to be a thriving Internet industry trafficking in purloined school assignments.
A quick search of the Internet for sites peddling term papers reveals an astonishing number of options for the doomed and desperate pupil, although many do come at a price.
On www.research-assistance.com, for example, students can browse an alphabetical list of categories - Cuba, evolution, or racism, just to name a few - to find the paper of their choice. For $136, a frantic high school or college student can download a 19-page paper on "Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt." It can be faxed for $9.50 or delivered overnight for $15.
Some sites, however, are free of charge. Schoolsucks.com, for example, serves as a type of portal for the disgruntled student, offering games, chats, and daily e-mails of free jokes. Visitors are encouraged to post a paper of their own when they download one from the site.
Kenny Sahr - who started the site in 1996 - says it now gets 10,000 hits per day with 600,000 people signed up for the daily e-mails.
Mr. Sahr insists he has no qualms about what he does, and calls it the students' responsibility to use the papers for research only, especially because he gives no guarantee of quality. "Those papers are written by students; then we put them there. But we're not rating them, we're not telling you these are good papers. In other words, if someone turns in a bad paper, well, it's not our problem."