With cheating on the rise at many college campuses, a technology war has broken out, as some Web sites vie to free students from paper-writing woes and others tout computer programs to battle the plagiarized papers.
Many college students have faced a similar dilemma: A professor's deadline looms and the panic-stricken student must cobble together a 20-page term paper before morning. Some students plug away all night; others use a click of the computer mouse to find hundreds of ready-made papers.
"Our teams of expert writers all have an emphasis in writing and many have been writing for us since our launch over seven years ago," proclaimed Irvine-based JunglePage.com, the self-described "premier online student research center" that sells pre-written essays focusing on astronomy to Shakespeare. "With an extensive writer network, JunglePage has helped students with tens of thousands of topics."JunglePage.com co-founder Alireza Alavian, who later sold the company, said the material on the Web site was only meant to be used as a research tool, not as a ready-made essay. "The same knife you use to cut food can be used to murder, it comes down to individual decision. We geared it more for research," he said.
As some students surrender to the temptation to claim someone else's work as their own, another Internet search can lead instructors straight to the software used to catch the cheaters.
Five hundred miles north of JunglePage's Orange County headquarters, downtown Oakland-based iParadigms has developed a program to scan students' papers, asserting that it is "recognized as the worldwide standard for preventing Internet plagiarism." The company's Web-based program, TurnItIn.com, is designed to identify papers containing unoriginal material.
This battle over cheating and how to prevent it has been fought in classrooms, academic senates, legislatures and courtrooms.
"There are new technologies that make it easier to cheat, but I don't think technology is the driver," said David Callahan, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Demos and author of "Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead." "I think technology is facilitating cheating by people who are more focused on cheating or have more incentives to cheat."
A spike in the problem
As competition for employment and graduate school admissions intensifies, cheating is increasing at some Northern California colleges and universities, with reported incidents of plagiarism and other academic dishonesty doubling and even tripling in recent years, according to statistics collected from prominent schools.
UC Berkeley, for example, has seen academic violations increase more than twofold to 236 in the 2007-08 academic year, up from 91 cases in 1998-99.
UC Davis confirmed 286 cheating incidents in 1998-99 and 393 in 2007-08, down from a high of 485 in 2004-05.
At San Jose State, reports of cheating have skyrocketed, with 212 academic integrity violations reported in 2007-08 compared with 68 violations in 1998-99.
The prevalence of cheating has been underscored by recent scandals across the country. In 2007, 34 business school students at Duke University were found to have cheated by collaborating on a take-home exam. That same year, many members of Florida State's football team were prevented from competing in a bowl game because they had been accused of accepting test answers from tutors or having papers written for them.
Closer to home, the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office reached plea deals with 36 students and former employees of Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill for their involvement in a 2007 cash-for-grades scandal. One other person was convicted by a jury.
Deputy district attorney Dodi Katague said at least 34 students paid hundreds of dollars per grade to three former admissions office employees who accessed the school's computer system to alter transcripts. The final case will be tried in August.
Cheating is hardly a new phenomenon, as countless students throughout the decades have written exam answers on the palms of their hands or glanced at a neighbor's test. But new technology enables other forms of cheating. During exams, for example, handheld devices such as BlackBerrys or Apple's iPhone can be used to conduct Web searches while hidden in backpacks or under desks.
Meanwhile, a virtual cottage industry of paper writing services has sprung up in cyberspace.
Business of cheating
JunglePage.com promises university-level writing structure, free bibliographies, and "satisfaction guaranteed." Prewritten essays cost as much as $9 per page, and custom essays cost $24.95 per page for a one-day turnaround, meaning an average 12-page paper will cost almost $300. Site managers could not be reached for a comment.
Other sites charge as much as $400 for a 12-page research paper written by a ghostwriter claiming to have a master's degree.
As countless companies compete, self-proclaimed watchdog Web sites have sprung up warning away students from unreliable online research companies, saying they sell plagiarized material.
Questions also have been raised about the legality of these companies.
Seventeen states, including California, have laws targeting paper mills that facilitate student plagiarism, according to a 2007 article by Darby Dickerson, Stetson Law School dean.
Enforcement of these statutes has been sporadic, but a number of lawsuits have targeted these companies.
Believing university degrees were being devalued by students submitting papers from online research companies, Boston University officials decided to launch a sting operation a decade ago with university representatives posing as students.
When the undercover operatives bought papers from several companies they said they "needed them as quickly as possible, and planned to submit them for academic credit," according to a judge's opinion in the university's lawsuit against companies in five states, including California. One company settled out of court and the judge threw out the case against the others.
The Paper Store Enterprises, Inc., sued unsuccessfully by Boston University, still maintains several Web sites, including 1MillionPapers.com. A representative said the company does not do interviews.
As such sites have multiplied, the technology to catch them has flourished.
Fighting the threat
Some professors are using Web sites such as TurnItIn.com. to scan each submitted paper. The company's software matches the student's material against current and archived writings on the Internet and student papers previously reviewed by the Web site along with journals and periodicals.
The software was developed in 1994 by John Barrie after he noticed students cheating while he taught a course as a graduate student instructor at UC Berkeley. After graduating with a doctorate in biophysics, Barrie founded iParadigms, which operates TurnItIn.com.
At his Oakland offices, Barrie said cheating is a problem that strikes at the heart of education. "Universities can have the best of everything, but if students aren't doing their own work, they become a degree printing house," Barrie said.
His company has spread across the world, Barrie said, and now has nearly 10,000 clients, including the Cal State University system, as well as most UC campuses. The TurnItIn system recognizes papers in 31 languages and reviews as many as 250,000 student papers per day, he said.
But using the anti-cheating software can be controversial.
Solution sparks debate
Saint Mary's College became a divided campus when officials considered requiring students from certain courses to submit their papers to TurnItIn.com. Supporters of the policy contended the software would reduce plagiarism, but opponents argued it would undermine the student-teacher relationship and the school's honor code.
Pleased with the results of a two-year trial period with TurnItIn that ended in May 2008, Saint Mary's decided to continue using TurnItIn and faculty members are now encouraged, but not required, to use the anti-plagiarism program, said professor Barbara McGraw, who led the faculty group that originally pitched the use of TurnItIn to the college three years ago.
According to a January 2007 campus survey, faculty members tended to believe TurnItIn.com. was deterring plagiarism and supported its use, but students were uncertain whether the program was working and wanted it discontinued.
"I suppose its presence would sway a possible cheater or two, but on the whole, I'm thinking not," said Samantha Levine, then a junior at the college.
Professor McGraw said she has caught two students plagiarizing. Once with TurnItIn and once on her own when she received a paper that seemed too sophisticated, even for a graduate student. Looking online, she discovered the student had turned in a paper originally written by Gore Vidal.
An issue of honor
Although Stanford, UCLA and USC have contracted with TurnItIn, UC Berkeley officials said the campus declined to contract with TurnItIn in 2001-02 because of concerns that keeping student papers in the TurnItIn database would violate their privacy and intellectual property rights. Today, the campus still does not contract with TurnItIn.
Chief Campus Counsel Michael Smith said students cannot be legally compelled to submit their papers to a plagiarism check as a condition of enrollment. "If it's voluntary, then that eliminates problems," Smith said.
The most effective way to prevent cheating is by instituting an honor code — not using Web-based programs, said Donald McCabe, a professor at Rutgers University and an expert on cheating.
"An honor code results in slightly less cheating than a system of punishments," McCabe said. "It instills responsibility and self governance."
Barrie disagrees, saying, "a law you can't enforce is worse than no law at all."
This story was produced for a course at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.