U partners with Web service to fight plagiarism

by Anne Preller

The University committed Tuesday to a one-year trial run with turnitin.com, a Web site that allows faculty to check student papers against a database of other papers to prevent plagiarism at the University.

The trial run will cost the University $4,000 and is a reaction to a series of high-profile plagiarism cases, which have raised concern in collegiate administrations everywhere.

“The scandal with the basketball team certainly brought it to our attention, but it is more than just one scandal with a basketball team,” said Lillian Bridwell-Bowles, director of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Writing. “I don’t think it is unique to the University of Minnesota. This is a national problem.”

When searching online, an Internet user can access anywhere from 50 to 300,000 Web sites with available written material, Bridwell-Bowles said.

“There is certainly increased concern among faculty about uses of electronic sources and the temptations they provide to students who find that time has slipped by, and a paper is due with less time to work on it than they might have originally hoped,” said Craig Swan, a professor of economics and vice provost for student development.

According to turnitin.com’s Web site, 80 percent of college students admit to cheating at least once, and 30 percent of students plagiarize from the Internet on a regular basis.

“There is a range of plagiarism, all the way from plagiarism that happens when people don’t know how to cite sources properly – and that is unintentional plagiarism – all the way to unethical misrepresentation of their work,” Bridwell-Bowles said.

Bridwell-Bowles, who is also a professor of English, has experienced plagiarism first hand. The majority of plagiarism encountered is unintentional, she said, but some cases are deliberate.

“I think it’s the job of the faculty to teach the students respect for intellectual property,” Bridwell-Bowles said.

Student Dispute and Resolution Center associate director Janet Morse agreed. “The students aren’t sure how to cite properly, and they think they do a reasonable job, but the professor won’t agree,” she said. “I don’t think they are choosing to be deceitful, I think it’s a lack of knowledge on how to properly cite sources.”

Morse warned that professors need to be careful when charging a student with plagiarism.

“We help students with all types of problems, and this is by far the worst thing students will have to deal with in their college career. It is the most disruptive – especially if they have been unjustly accused,” Morse said.

She advises faculty members to review course syllabi and be open to discuss plagiarism accusations with students to better understand what students did, instead of assuming they copied the assignment from a book.

Morse said the SDRC sees from 40 to 50 cases of possible plagiarism per year.

Twin Cities faculty and students will receive information about the anti-plagiarism software before fall semester.

The University’s one-year trial will end August 2002, and the University will then evaluate the effectiveness of the system.

“The bottom line is that it is important to respect the rights of students who do their own work,” Bridwell-Bowles said. “Enforcing the rules about plagiarism is a way to do that.”


Anne Preller covers student life and welcomes comments at [email protected]