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Copycats on Campus

For college and university students, the Web has become an indispensable tool for limitless learning. Most of them use it to expand their knowledge and skills in ways no previous generation ever has.

Along with a speed-of-light search and transfer of information, however, lies the temptation to lift the words of others to fulfill a course assignment. Many Websites, for instance, now sell research papers.

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Such high-tech, cut-and-paste plagiarizing is just as self-defeating to one's integrity as the traditional kind. But for those prone to cheat, the Internet makes it easy to do it again and again.

Fortunately, professors are becoming hip to it. Many are developing countermeasures to make students stick to honest methods of research that reflect their true talents.

The magnitude of this digital deceit - and new ways to curb it - were seen recently at the University of Virginia, a school that long has had an honor code that puts trust in students doing their own work. A professor of introductory physics did a computer check of test papers over several years, and found 122 cases of suspected cheating. Sixty papers were almost identical. He believes students passed along successful test papers by e-mail.

The Web's search engines and other computer tools can help spot plagiarism as much as they facilitate it. Teachers, especially of large freshman classes, need to maintain clever vigilance and stay one step ahead of any would-be cheaters. This includes designing assignments that can't be done just by copying others' work.

But beyond adopting new ways to snare cheaters, teachers can also talk to students about their possible motives for cheating - laziness, a sense of pressure, low expectations of themselves - and help them see that even the smallest dishonesty can erode one's integrity in all matters of daily life, including relationships, careers, parenting.

Helping students conquer their fear of failure doesn't take a computer whiz. Schools can also teach that being honest isn't difficult when it's seen as the most satisfying and effective way to succeed beyond school.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor