Academic Dishonesty in the Digital Age


True Story: A teacher at a school where I used to teach caught a student doing something wrong and used the tried and true method of having the student write out 100 times "I will not do... <the bad thing>." The student asked if she could type it, and the teacher said "Yes." The student sat down at the computer and within 30 seconds had completed the task by simply typing the line once and then copying and pasting it down the page and printing it out. While I didn't agree with the form of punishment, and while I admired the cleverness of the student, I didn't like the way the teacher got duped.

In only a few short years the personal computer, the CD-ROM encyclopedia and the Internet have radically changed the way students do research. Although these developments allow the more rapid dissemination of information (which most educators would not consider a bad thing) a new set of problems has been created for those of us in charge of fostering academic honesty. While some of these problems are not new, recently introduced technology is compounding them. Some students spend more time trying to figure out how to avoid doing an assignment than the actual doing would have taken. Only the clumsiest students are caught - a clever plagiarist will often get away with it.

The tools of technology are taking power away from the teacher and putting it into the hands of the cheater. The act of copying a detailed assignment is now far easier than it was when words or pictures had to be transcribed by hand. The time involved in transcribing by hand used to be something of a discouraging factor, but this is no longer the case. The digital medium makes perfect copies so duplicates cannot be distinguished from the original as they would in the case of photocopied materials or when transcription errors creep in. There is also no degradation of copies, so a copy of a copy is as good as the original, allowing the further spread of the original material in good condition. With inexpensive and easy to use OCR (optical character recognition) software and a scanner, printed text can be quickly imported into a word processor for "doctoring."

The cut and paste features of word processors enable students to take excerpts from CD-ROM, the Internet, essay banks, or from files shared on disk or by e-mail, etc., and rearrange them so that the work appears to be original. With word search and replace features, obscure or idiosyncratic words that might quickly give away the paper as a copy can be systematically substituted for more generic ones. With a variety of fonts and page formatting options, even papers that are word-for-word identical can be made to look very different from one another at first glance. The most frustrating part is that students need not even read the paper they assemble before turning it in for credit!

Electronic libraries of essays, reports, and homework assignments on a wide range of topics are being stored by businesses who offer these items to students for "research purposes" or as "study aids." Even Cliff's Notes has gone digital! Some even promise, for a fee of course, to write a paper on the topic of your choice and deliver it to you the same day! Same day service costs about $10.00 per page! Some examples include:,,,,,,,, In fact, one of the anti-plagiarism companies, called MyDropBox, reputedly also sells to the other side!

Here is a list of paper categories at one site: Accounting, Admissions Essays, Africa, Anatomy, Animal Rights, Anthropology, Argumentative Essays, Art & Architecture, Asian Studies, Biographies, Biology, Black Studies, Book Reports, Business, Canadian Studies, Career Guidance, Chemistry, China, Communications, Computers, Culinary Science, Creative Writing, Criminal Justice, Drugs & Alcohol, Economics, Education, Environmental, Ethics, Film, TV & Theater, Finance, Gay & Lesbian, Gender Studies, Genetics, Geology, Global Politics, Government, Health & Nutrition, History - U.S., History -Europe, Holocaust, Israel / Middle East, Japan, Korea, Internet, Labor Studies, Latin-America, Law & Legal, Literature, Management, Mass Media, Mathematics, Medicine, Music, Mythology, Native Indian Studies, Nursing, Nutrition, Oceanography, Philosophy, Physics, Poetry, Political Science, Presidential Studies, Pro-Con Essays, Psychology, Public Administration, Religion, Russia, Sciences, Sex & Sexuality, Shakespeare, Sociology, Sports Issues, Technology, Theology, Theses / Dissertations, Transportation, Urban Studies, Western Civilization, Women's Issues, World Affairs, Zoology

Students in foreign language classes can avoid composition assignments by using an electronic translator like Babelfish.

In Distance Learning courses delivered over the Internet, instructors may never even meet their students face to face. The possibility of exchange of test answers or other work between class members (who are often encouraged to work in groups and communicate with each other) or the impersonation of a test taker by someone with greater expertise are problems we are only beginning to think about.

Another True Story: A teacher is trying to show a movie to her class but the television volume keeps going up and down and the channel keeps changing. The teacher is mystified but calls a fellow teacher who is a technology whiz. The tech whiz tells the teacher to put a piece of black tape over the remote sensor on the television and immediately the problem goes away. Why? A student in the class had a wristwatch tv remote control and was having fun at her expense.

Teachers are not helpless, but they need to consider some of the following questions:

Questions for Discussion:

1. Since some of our students are more technologically savvy than their instructors, how can teachers avoid being exploited by new technologies?

2. In what ways will the computer necessitate a change in the sort of out-of-class assignments we give to students?

3. What additional tools, techniques, or strategies are available to teachers in order to detect and prevent or deal with increased plagiarism and copying?

4. Describe some of the common practices of teachers that a student could circumvent with new technology.

5. Discuss ways to ensure honesty and fairness in the online classroom.

6. What technologies can teachers use to search for plagiarism? (Hint: Google, TurnItIn)

Online Resources: Turn It In .com, an online anti-plagiarism resource. Users of this service can check papers for originality against known articles available on the web. Microsoft's web version of the CD-ROM encyclopedia. A good first place to check for what is available on a given subject. Google, a great Internet search engine Babelfish, a nifty language translator

Know thine enemy:

A variety of sites on the Internet sell term papers as "study aids" or for "research purposes", while others are more up front about their motivations. Here is a small sample.,,,


1. Go to Microsoft's Encarta Website and see what you can find on the subject of Charles Darwin's voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, for example. Copy and paste what you find into a word processor such as Microsoft Word.

2. Now do a Google Search on the same topic and copy and paste any useful additions into the word processor document.

3. Add some text of your own to join the pieces together.

4. Make some formatting changes (fonts, margins, spacing, etc.) and move the paragraphs around so that they fit together nicely.

5. Print it out and share it with your fellow teachers. See if the copies your colleagues produced are different enough from yours that you would not identify them as borrowed works.

The Result: A Darwin Biography in 5 minutes or less.


Download a PowerPoint presentation on strategies for fostering Academic Integrity

Download a paper (PDF) by Barbara Christie on Discouraging Academic Dishonesty

Duke's Center for Academic Integrity

Tools for safely taking exams online: Software Secure