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.