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Professor turns to computer to root out cheaters

More than 120 students are accused of cheating on papers for a physics class at the University of Virginia.

©Washington Post, published May 10, 2001


The rumors had circulated among University of Virginia students who packed the auditoriums for Physics 105 and 106: Some people weren't writing their own papers. Finally, one student took her suspicions to the professor.

A decade ago, it would have been hard for Lou Bloomfield to sniff out plagiarism in a class that draws as many as 500 students a semester. Last month, though, he designed a simple computer program to look for any common phrases and set it loose on his electronic database of 1,800 term papers. His heart sank as his computer churned out one match after another.

"It was a little more common than I hoped," he said.

Bloomfield's search has triggered the university's biggest cheating investigation in memory, with a total of 122 students accused in the scandal and as many as half of them expected to face the only penalty available for cheating here -- expulsion or loss of degrees awarded in earlier years.

A blow to the university's famed honor code, the staggering number of cases is forcing the student-run disciplinary system to work overtime. Among the accused are students who graduated a year or more ago, and some who are scheduled to receive their diplomas in less than two weeks.

Yet some faculty and student leaders take a strange satisfaction in the scandal. For years, they feared that computer technology made it too easy for students to crib from Web sites or to cut-and-paste someone else's essay. In Bloomfield's class, the computers finally bit back.

"Technology really is a double-edged sword when it comes to cheating," said Thomas Hall, student chairman of the university's honor committee. "The means for detecting cheating are catching up with the means for cheating."

Added David Gies, a longtime Spanish professor: "It will send a wake-up call to those students who have forgotten what the community of trust is all about."

Plagiarism has become an increasing concern in the age of the Internet. The World Wide Web offers students access to exotic research materials once far out of reach. But many educators fear it also offers a powerful temptation as well, to borrow the words of others with a simple click and drag of the mouse.

A survey last year of 2,200 students at 21 colleges found that 10 percent admitting they had borrowed fragments of material they found on the Internet, while 5 percent said they had taken large passages or entire papers. "It's providing a simpler technology" for those who are inclined to cheat, said Don McCabe, a Rutgers University professor who conducted the study.

Several commercial ventures now offer Web sites or software to help teachers ferret out plagiarism. At the University of California at Berkeley, one professor used such a service to run the work of 340 neurobiology students through an Internet search engine; 45 students were found to have stolen material.

Such programs may have had little effect in Bloomfield's class, though, where students were apparently stealing not from the Internet -- but from each other.

Bloomfield's wildly popular two-part course, How Things Work, offers an introduction to the physics of everyday life -- how an airplane flies, how a television works -- taught in laymen's language. Students say he is famous for his lively in-class demonstrations -- spraying a fire extinguisher to propel himself across the room on a skateboard, making a light bulb shine by microwaving it in a cup of water.

This semester he enrolled 320 students, last semester, 520 -- a class so large that students sit in three auditoriums. Bloomfield stands in one room, his lectures broadcast by closed-circuit television to the two others.

Along with exams, students are required to turn in one 1,500-word paper that describes the physics of common technology, such as a helicopter or cell phone. Papers are submitted by e-mail.

The student who brought her complaints to Bloomfield was bitter because she had received a low grade on her paper, the professor said. Meanwhile, she said she know of many other students who had simply borrowed essays written by friends who had earned A's in previous semesters.

"There are always stories of files being kept of old papers," Bloomfield said, "but I had never heard of it being made real."

He designed his program to scan papers and identify any that shared phrases of at least six words. The computer rarely stumbled upon six-word matches in papers that otherwise appeared to have been written independently. But almost every time it found a six-word match, it found long passages in common, up to cases where "virtually the entire paper is the same."

It took the program 50 hours to run through more than 1,800 papers, but it was not long before the first matches appeared, and they showed the papers to be virtual replicas of one another.

"In this universe, it's not six or 12 identical words in a phrase," Bloomfield said. "It's 1,500. I expected to see a couple of matches. I was a bit shocked to find 60."

He now realizes that the medium of e-mail, which made it so much easier for him to collect and grade his papers, may also have enabled students to casually spread and swap their work.

"Technology has made some of the easy ways out very seductive and blurred the lines between what's acceptable and what's not," he said. "Cheating is on a gray scale. Things come rolling into your computer, and you feel ownership of them even if you don't own them.

"You slide down the slope into full-fledged intellectual theft."

Thomas Hall, a student who heads the university's Honor Committee, said that an investigative panel was going through the 122 cases and that the students who were found to have cheated have been told they would be expelled.

Often, he said, the students whose papers were copied said they had shared their work to help a fellow student but did not know it would be plagiarized. In those cases, the students have not been thrown out.

- Information from the New York Times was included in this report.

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