Anti-plagiarism software records increase in academic dishonesty

By Logan Portteus

This story is one of a three-part collaborative report on academic dishonesty by James Egaran, Logan Portteus and Hailey Palmer. They collectively obtained and analyzed data, and interviewed sources.  

In December 2016, a Western student received a letter from Mathematics Chair Tjalling Ypma of the WWU Academic Honesty Board, rejecting their appeal to a charge of academic dishonesty.

The appeal case was presented to the university’s Academic Honesty Board after the student’s professor found that much of their opening pages of their term paper was copied directly from Wikipedia with no source attribution.

According to the letter, the student appealed this by stating that the information is public knowledge and therefore didn’t require attribution, to which Ypma wrote, “I disagree with that assessment – that material certainly includes things outside my own experience.”

This case is one of many appeals of the roughly 1,000 cases of academic dishonesty at Western in the past 17 years.

These cases include all forms of academic dishonesty, such as using a cell phone on a test, collaboration with a classmate, unauthorized notes and copying homework. The most common form of academic dishonesty over a 17-year time period is plagiarism, with roughly 387 reported cases.

Recorded dishonesty rates will not reflect the total number of students cheating, because the number of students that don’t get caught will always be unknown, in addition to incidents where professors choose to handle it internally instead of going through the process of a dishonesty report.

The Spike of 2012

The annual rates of academic dishonesty have substantially increased since 2012.  

The recorded number of cheating cases in the 2011-12 school year was 64, followed by 89 cases in 2012-13.  Last year, there were 97 cases of professors accusing students of cheating, and in 2015-16, there were 102, or 0.00064 percent of the student population.

The data of recorded cases of academic dishonesty from 2000-17 was obtained via public records requests to the university and correspondence with the Provost Office. The total enrollment numbers for this time period were obtained from Associate Director of Institutional Research Sharon Schmidtz.

While this leap may not seem dramatic, the average number of dishonesty cases between 2012 and 2017 was 100 cases, compared to the 43-case average of the 12-year period prior. Whether this indicates higher rates of cheating or more students being caught is a difficult, potentially unanswerable question.

Infographic by Sophia Greif

With an increase in average recorded cases, a single question becomes clear: What caused the spike?

The question may be obvious, but the answer is elusive.

“I find it hard to suggest that Canvas or TurnItIn might’ve been the reason for [the spike],” Director of Academic Technology and User Services, John Farquhar, said. “Other than perhaps more faculty were aware of the tools and it was easier to utilize, but I don’t have any specific data to translate that the tool was being used more at all.”

Western adopted its previous management system Blackboard around 1999, which later provided a built-in plagiarism detection software as one of its new services around 2007, Farquhar said.

When Western made the conversion to the new program Canvas in 2013, there was no anti-plagiarism add-on like before. Farquhar said they wanted to replicate the old functions with a third-party provider. They initially adopted TurnItIn, which was switched to VeriCite last summer.

“I think there’s greater concern about [online cheating], and I think that’s more of a reflection of faculty wanting to utilize the online resource more in their education,”

Director of Academic Technology and User Services John Farquhar.

Because VeriCite was implemented recently, there is no concrete data to suggest how effective it is in catching plagiarism, compared to TurnItIn or Blackboard.

TurnItIn acquired VeriCite in February, but it is unclear at this time whether or not this will change the functionality of the software.

The TurnItIn-VeriCite merge was announced on the TurnItIn website three days after the interview with Farquhar and Lanham.

Western faculty’s increasing reliance on online assignments and tests may be a contributing factor to the recorded dishonesty cases, according to Farquhar.  

With a rise in internet-based content and testing, he explained, professors are becoming more attentive of students being who they say they are, and if they are using other online resources to complete their assignment or test.  

While faculty are unable to view which websites students are accessing when testing, they are able to see when students access Canvas pages linked to their course, including pages with information that may be part of the test.

This means if a student is taking an online quiz or test, the instructor for that course is able to identify if they are cheating with course material on Canvas. This may apply to tests being taken during class too, as the instructor is able to see the time and date that students access their Canvas material for their course.

While academic dishonesty is a problem for the university and educational integrity, there are a wide range of reasons that may lead to a student cheating, including lack of understanding of academic honesty policies at Western.

In August 2017, a student appealed an allegation of dishonesty by stating, “It was never my intent to give away any material for the use of copying. We are deeply involved in a very demanding, stressful, accelerated physics course that requires the use of our peers from time to time when the material isn’t quite understood.”  

The student was reported to the Western Academic Honesty Board along with their classmate, who used the student’s work for their own assignment.

The student’s appeal form explained they were attempting to help their peer understand the course material and were unaware the other student would copy their work word-for-word. They further stated the student who copied their work agreed they should receive all of the punishment as they were the one that plagiarized.

The board decided the student who made the appeal would take an educational program on academic dishonesty, and their assignment would be graded as a zero but could count as one of two homework scores the student may drop at the end of the quarter, as described in their syllabus.

“I think there’s greater concern about [online cheating], and I think that’s more of a reflection of faculty wanting to utilize the online resource more in their education,” Farquhar said.

“Awareness can always cause a spike,” Chief Information Officer Chuck Lanham said. “Since Blackboard had been on campus longer and their anti-plagiarism software was an add-on, perhaps faculty didn’t know about that functionality.  So when Canvas comes to campus and has all these new features and ‘Ooh, anti-plagiarism software is one of them,’ the numbers went up as more people became aware of it maybe that contributed to more recorded cases.”

Lanham agreed that an increase in internet literacy may be a contributing factor to the 2012 spike, too.  

Blackboard included a built-in plagiarism software, while Canvas is being utilized at Western with a supplemental software, which was initially TurnItIn, and has since been replaced by Western with VeriCite in the summer of 2017.

The spike may have been a result of new software being implemented in the academic year that it occured, but Farquhar said this is unlikely and proposed a counterargument to that justification for the 2012 spike.

The brand-new anti-plagiarism software, he said, has less campus-wide student content to compare submissions with than in the subsequent years. Although VeriCite has a small campus repository to compare to, it still matches plagiarized content to sources from the rest of the internet.

 “So, at the start of 2012, we had just moved to a new system that didn’t have a significant repository [of previously submitted assignments], and so I could argue that you could find fewer matches, that there would be fewer incidents where the software would be finding cases of plagiarism [of other Western students],” Farquhar said.  “So I don’t have a good argument for why 2012 would’ve been the year that cheating rates spiked. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Some professors, like Project Director and Professor at the College of Science and Engineering Roxane Ronca, prefer to handle academic dishonesty themselves over going through the reporting process.

“I will say [I] haven’t gone through the process yet,” Ronca said. “I told a student, ‘I can report you and we can go through this whole process, and it will be painful. You haven’t passed anything yet, so why don’t you drop the class?’ I just felt that it was in their best interest, and mine too.”

At other schools, Farquhar said, the administration utilizes a lockdown browser, which prevents students from accessing any other browser other than the window and tab that they are taking their test on. While this doesn’t prevent cell phone or tablet access, it could be a potential step in preventing academic dishonesty.

Farquhar said there is no real solution for cheating in a digital age, and identifying the issue as an arms race between Western’s current anti-plagiarism software, VeriCite, and professor discretion and students trying to find ways around it.

The Technological Arms Race

While the technology of anti-plagiarism software hasn’t advanced much in the past four to five years, the culture of technology is rapidly changing, Farquhar said.

To support this, Lanham described an app that looks like a calculator, but with the stroke of a button reveals additional notes behind-the-scene. An app like this could potentially allow students to access hidden notes while taking exams.

“It’ll be interesting to see how society moves forward,” Farquhar said. He pointed to his iPhone, and then to his glasses, “We have devices here, we have devices up here that will shoot information straight into your eyes.  How are we, as a society, going to manage that?”

Lanham interrupted the conversation to show a text he received earlier that day from a sender with his Moscow, Idaho area code who mistook his number for someone else’s. The text displays an image of what seems to be a high school student’s history test.

The role of Information Technology Services is to provide effective software for catching plagiarism immediately, in addition to offering Western an effective overall learning management system.

With a changing internet and a technologically fluent culture, these software programs have changed and been replaced over time.

When asked what the main advantages of VeriCite are, Lanham chuckled and stated, “The cost.”

Farquhar followed this by explaining, “The TurnItIn product was pricey. It was the market leader at the time that we adopted it.  They gave us an introductory price; one of those things where they go, ‘we’ll give you a reduction,’ and a couple years later start increasing the price substantially,” he said. “That’s what led to our switch from TurnItIn over to VeriCite.  VeriCite didn’t exist four years ago, so it’s a newcomer into this market and was offering much less expense.”

Farquhar said VeriCite costs $14,719 annually. This is a substantial price difference from the current cost of TurnItIn, which Farquhar said is initially $36,000 and climbed to $43,000 annually.

Both TurnItIn and VeriCite are not self-functioning methods of catching plagiarism, and require the professor to examine the flagged sections that may have been plagiarized.  

The software requires instructor interpretation of the plagiarism-matching score that each submitted assignment generates, examining the individual quote matches to see if it was appropriately cited. This is something Farquhar said he always tells faculty to remember.

With each assignment submitted through Canvas at Western, faculty see a little flag next to the student’s submission that uses stoplight colors and a percentage, which indicates the number of word-for-word matches the content has with online material and previously-submitted assignments.

“I would venture to say that there’s nothing unique about Western that would make it more or less susceptible to cheating [than other universities]”

Chief Information Officer Chuck Lanham said.

It is then up to the professor to investigate the detection score and determine if the student’s submission may be deemed plagiarism.

“So, on the one hand I think many faculty are appreciative when they’re teaching a large class that VeriCite allows them to have an assignment where students will write up a paper and submit it and a system [that] will try to take care of the concerns about plagiarism,” Farquhar said.  

Subsequently, the instructor saves time by only having to look at the VeriCite matches instead of single-handedly analyzing the academic integrity of every assignment submitted.

On the other hand, there is a concern that as online-means of education expand, there is a larger possibility of students taking advantage of these systems, Farquhar said.  As education relies more heavily on internet-based testing over classroom testing, there is a lessened ability to monitor cheating without  infringing on rights of privacy.

“We took a look at studies and talked to other campuses before we made the change [to VeriCite].  We wanted to make sure we weren’t switching to an inferior product,” Farquhar said. “They said that in some ways, VeriCite was finding things that TurnItIn wasn’t, and so we found that the comparison was pretty solid, and VeriCite was something like a fourth of the price.  It became pretty obvious that we should make the move.”

While academic dishonesty is clearly an issue at Western, one that has required time, resources and funding to counter, it may simply reflect a broader state of academic dishonesty in higher education.

“I would venture to say that there’s nothing unique about Western that would make it more or less susceptible to cheating [than other universities],” Lanham said.

A Shift in Culture?

When it comes to limiting academic dishonesty, Lanham said the technological component is the easy part.

Changing the academic culture, however, is a much harder task with no clear course of action.

Farquhar noted he has seen some studies that show simply offering students an agreement not to cheat before they take an exam leads to fewer cases of dishonesty.

“We must create a culture where [cheating] is not acceptable. Every faculty member has to be aware of it, every student needs to know it’s not an acceptable behavior,” Associate Professor of the College of Business and Economics Ed Love said.

While a cultural approach is clearly difficult to quantify or implement, it may be ethically stronger than increasingly pervasive methods that would infringe on our inherent rights to privacy, Farquhar said.

Shifting the culture from competition to the overarching goal of learning may be a solution.

“Fostering more [guided] collaboration among students and their instructors would sort of diminish the need to cheat,” Ronca said.

To begin a discourse on a cultural shift, it is important to recognize there is a wide range of reasons that students cheat at Western. These include a competitive academic culture, other obligations like financial stability and work, mental and physical illness and the pressure to succeed due to the cost of higher education, among other reasons.

“I agree with [Farquhar] that the conversation shouldn’t be on the technology, which we could throw a lot of money at and not get much gain,” Lanham said. “But if we approach it from the humanistic side and educate our students about what it means to be a part of a better society, we could enhance academic honesty, and I think we’d be better off.”

 

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