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By Paul-Mark Rendon
A new web site is promising to be the ultimate copy-cat detector and a step towards catching scholarly thieves, including students and faculty.
The web site, www.plagiarism.org, allows instructors to download essays or exercises and cross-reference every phrase and page in a term paper using the electronic aid of the largest 20 search engines, or internet browsers, said the site's co-founder John Barrie, a neurobiology PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley.
"We compare every term paper given to us against our internal data base of the 800 plus million web pages on the internet," he explained. "It allows us to compare student papers against hundreds of web sites who give term papers away for a fee."
Barrie said the service charges $1 per page reviewed, with over 30 schools across the continent currently signed on as users. "This technology is really going to catch a lot of people off guard," he said.
Barrie came up with the idea of starting the service when he worked as a teacher's assistant and created a place online for students to review each other's essays. "I was paid [minimum wage] and had so little time, that it was just not fair to the students for me to grade their papers," he said. He added the project turned out to be a success. "Students got tons of high quality feedback from each other," he said, but explained the experiment soon turned sour.
"They were essentially turning their peers in. I couldn't believe it they were stealing each other's term papers," he said, explaining his ultimate goal was to increase ethics, while simultaneously increasing educational quality.
Michael Owen, dean of the faculty of science, agreed plagiarism was a pressing issue on university campuses. "One of the problems both students and faculty confront, is that plagiarism is not always absolutely intentional. They'll pick an idea, hold onto one or two colourful phrases and repeat it in their answer to the exercise or essay," he said.
Barrie agreed the service did have its limits and the onus was still on those reviewing the papers to judge how seriously plagiarized an essay was. "What we make crystal clear with everyone using the service is that no computer, algorithm or organization would be able to tell you if a document is plagiarized. It has to be interpreted by the instructor," he said.
Ernie Redekop, president of the University of Western Ontario's Faculty Association, said the web site could come in handy, however UWOFA was not currently looking into using its services. "Anything which helps a professor track down plagiarism is probably a good thing," he said.
"It really is unfair to the student who plagiarizes because he really doesn't learn anything," Redekop added.