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Cheating and Plagiarism – High Risk, High Cost and Easier Detect

Intense competition for college acceptance, escalating tuition costs upon acceptance and limited scholarship opportunities. Lingering effects of the Great Recession resulting in higher unemployment and underemployment even in 2015. A global market for talent that results in competition for jobs not just with neighbors but with candidates from countries around the world. High stakes exams and standardized tests, and school funding based on part by the results of these tests. Evidence that students with college degrees are more likely to be employed and earn higher wages, according to a California study. Given all of these factors it’s no surprise that cheating and plagiarism remain a problem around the world, with students, parents and educators alike being tempted to cut corners despite the risks.

The most dramatic recent example of cheating was viral video from India where parents and relatives of students taking high stakes exams were filmed scaling the walls of testing centers to pass answers to students. According to the BBC, about 300 people were arrested and over 750 students have been expelled as a result of  the cheating incidents.

The pressure doesn’t just impact students and their families, but also teachers and administrators in school districts that risk losing funding if standardized test scores fail to hit mandated targets. In 2011, a massive teacher cheating scandal was uncovered in Atlanta where 178 educators at 44 of the district’s 56 schools engaged in cheating (read more…). This is just one of multiple examples of institutionalized cheating as districts take desperate measures to increase test scores. The bestselling book “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything” uncovered a similar case of mass cheating in the Chicago school system by looking at unusual patterns in the test results, estimating that cheating occurred in 4-5% of classrooms every year. In uncovering the cheating, the Freakonomics researchers developed a method for detecting mass cheating that was published in the The National Bureau of Economic Research (synopsis here). From the synopsis: ‘The authors’ cheating algorithm relies on the fact that students in cheating classrooms will likely “experience unusually large test score gains in the year of the cheating, followed by unusually small gains or even declines in the following year.” Just as important, answers within a cheating classroom will also display unusual patterns, such as identical blocks of answers for many students, or cases in which students answer difficult questions correctly but get easier ones wrong.’

Big Data analysis to uncover standardized test cheating by analyzing patterns can also be applied to another popular form of cheating – plagiarism. Plagiarism is nothing new, as this satirical piece on the history of plagiarism suggests, but with the advent of the Internet plagiarizing the works of others is both a lot easier (just a copy and paste away) but easier to detect. Plagiarism is a high risk shortcut not worth taking, as this sampling of Stanford University plagiarism cases indicates; in most cases the student was suspended for one quarter and was required to complete 40 hours of community service.

Princeton University’s Academic Integrity guidelines provides a useful definition of what plagiarism is – and isn’t – helping to answer the question of when copying text is a legitimate citing of another’s work vs. plagiarism. A key point is that “A passage from a source may be worth quoting at length if it makes a point precisely or elegantly. In such cases, copy the passage exactly, place it in quotation marks, and cite the author.” (source)

It’s for these reasons that teachers start as early as elementary school training students that “copy and paste” from a web page does not constitute original work. Fortunately for parents and teachers, detecting copy and paste essays is becoming a lot easier thanks to plagiarism checking tools like this one from thepensters.com, or another option from grammarly.com. Recognize this paragraph? “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.” It’s from the opening paragraph of the classic American novel Moby Dick. A copy and paste of this famous text is unlikely to help your grades but rather result in a detour to the principal or dean’s office.

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