Software helps schools fight plagiarism

March 16, 2009 8:07:43 AM PDT
Using the internet to plagiarize has become a major problem here in the Bay Area and in schools across the country. A recent ethics survey by a Southern California institute shows 38-percent of high school students admit to doing it. Now, a school district on the Peninsula is going high-tech in its fight to stop cheaters.

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For seniors in a San Mateo High School AP English class, turning in a paper doesn't always require paper. More and more, teachers are asking students to first submit their essays online to a company that tries to catch plagiarism.

"The assignment will be listed here, and then you just click on it and you can submit your document," said Nick Chen, senior.

"It's a good way to catch kids who use their brothers paper from previous years, or maybe someone who had a similar assignment in a different class," said Nels Johnson, AP English teacher.

Teacher Nels Johnson is the tester for the San Mateo Union High School District - which recently voted to spend $9,000 dollars in this budget challenged year to hire an Oakland-based company called Turnitin.

Students' essays are compared against everything out there on the Internet, some proprietary content and the millions of student papers Turnitin has on file. The teacher then gets a report - showing the percentage of words matching other documents. But is this presumed guilty until proven innocent? Students we talked to say maybe. But, if you didn't do anything wrong, you have no reason to worry.

"I'm fine because I know I'm clean, so it's not too nerve-wracking," said Kimi Yamada, senior.

Colleges including the cal state system have been using Turnitin for a few years. But high schools are just now starting to pony up the money for anti-plagiarism services - the reason?

"Cheating in high school is rampant because most people care a lot about their grades and there's just so much pressure on us lately to get into college," said Haley Hirai, senior.

But Turnitin has its critics; some say the software may be able to detect paragraphs lifted word for word, but not necessarily stolen ideas that have been cleverly re-worked.

"I do think a kid who is clever can find summary material and re-phrase it in his own words. But that kind of clever kid is few and far between," said Johnson.

Some students have sued the company for holding onto their intellectual property. What if they become the next William Shakespeare? Turnitin won the suit.

"Our database protects that student's work from future exploitation from somebody else getting a hold of that paper and selling it or claiming it as their own," said Katie Povesjil, Turnitin.

The San Mateo Union High School District is wrestling with budget cuts like everyone else -- so there's a good possibility the district may discontinue this service next year. Mr. Johnson says if that happens, he'll try to pay for it on his own - even though he hasn't caught anyone plagiarizing yet.

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