Watchdog over College Copycats | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 30.03.2002
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Watchdog over College Copycats

As essay-faking remains a problem at universities, a rising number are using anti-plagiarism software.


Bad news for students paying ghostwriters to do their academic work

The pin boards in Germany’s universities are full of them: bits of paper, advertising "academic support in writing thesis’ and essays" and similar dubious methods of assistance in coping with the university workload. Similar advertising can be found on the net – indeed, the market for ghostwriting-websites is one of the few dotcom business’ still thriving.

However, one market often leads to another. The past months have seen an increasing interest in software designed to catch academic cheats. Turnitin, a leading software house, based in California has come with up an anti-plagiarism software which is being used by 20 universities across the US.

Digital fingerprint

The software divides up papers submitted to scrutiny into tiny pieces of text, the "digital fingerprint". These are then scrutinised and compared with more than a billion documents, including classic literature and the firm’s own archive of submitted works, as well as an overview of the current contents of the World Wide Web.

Whenever a matching pattern is found, the software makes a note. It then highlights any recurring replication or obvious paraphrasing. The submitted paper is then returned to the teacher.

It is up to him or her to then make the final decision whther the paper deserves a degree or not.

The subscriber base of Turnitin has been rising steadily in the past months. Turnitin was founded in 1996, when a group of researchers at UC Berkeley created a series of computer programmes to monitor the recycling of research papers in their large undergraduate classes.

Encouraged by a high level of interest from their peers, the researchers teamed with a group of teachers, mathematicians, and computer scientists to form, the world's first Internet-based plagiarism detection service.

Around 150,000 students and their academic efforts in the US are at current under the observance of Turnitin software. It has also been tested at five colleges in Britain.

In Germany, plagiarism is a problem which is also causing concern at universities and colleges across the country. The increasing number of faked thesis’ and dissertations in Germany is closely linked to the fact that today’s diplomas do not have to be published, Hans Bohrmann, Professor Journalism in Dortmund told a German daily. This way it is far easier to copy an essay which has not been read by the public.

Another booster to plagiarism is the net: Thesis’ are avaible simply via the many websites offering access to scientific works, and therefore more liable to being copied. According to Turnitin, "from elementary schools to the highest levels of academia, the allure and ease of downloading and copying "untraceable" online information have led to a virtual epidemic of digital plagiarism".

Ghostwriter websites

In Germany, students, either afraid of the workload, or too busy to take on the writing of an acdemic degree, can check a variety of ghostwriter websites, and simply send in an enquiry for a faked diploma via email. The answer is prompt, a diploma can be written within 4 weeks, half the time spent by the average student. Costs range from 3000 Euros to 5000 Euros.

So is it worth it? Seen from the legal side, the contracts signed by client and ghostwriter are illegal. Does the essay turn out to be mediocre, and the marks bad, there are no hopes that the client will get his money back.

On the student side, clients who hand in a ghostwriter-written, or faked diploma will, in the worst case, loose their titles. So far, university copycats do not get charged.

A question of cooperation

Turnitin’s software may bring an end to plagiarism at universities. But it may also not – due to the question whether universities will actually adopt the thorough scouring of handed-in essays at their various institutions.

According to research, academic dishonesty often correlates with high academic achievement. The list of universities using Turnitin’s software boasts some of the US’ best universities, such as Cornell and Duke. However, none of America’s top-notch universities are on the list, such as Harvard and Yale.

Setting standards

According to Turnitin, "it is our hope that the technologies developed at will continue to set standards for innovation and efficiency in this new era of digital education."

But whether their mission will be achieved lies very much in the hands of the academics themselves.

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