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Plagiarism Battle in Schools Goes High-Tech

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This is for any students out there who might be thinking about plagiarizing a paper next year. Be warned. Dozens of high schools and colleges in Illinois now use computer software to detect plagiarism. Teachers say it's a way to make sure students use the Internet responsibly. But others say these kinds of programs send the wrong message. Chicago Public Radio's Mike Rhee tested some software with his own school work.

View Mike Rhee’s college paper after it was run through a plagiarism program.

RHEE: Now this paper was written a long time ago, I just want to clarify that.

I guess I'm a little nervous. Gail Zaininger and I are sitting in front of her computer at Naperville Central High School. Zaininger heads the writing center.

RHEE: Is that it? Was there more?
ZAININGER: That's it. Your paper has been submitted.

We've just uploaded one of my old college essays onto a website called turnitin.com. The district uses this site to check for plagiarism. Zaininger says she doesn't use the program to police students. She says it's a way to teach them how to cite sources.

Now I don't think I cheated. But I'm worried the computer might say I did. The program finishes its scan, and a color-coded meter shows up on the screen. It looks like Homeland Security's threat alert.

ZAININGER: And see it shows here the degree of taking from other sources. And red is high, you don't want to be there.

RHEE: Is green OK?
ZAININGER: Green is OK.

My paper's green. According to Turnitin, 11-percent of my paper comes from other sources, which I've cited. Now, a plagiarized paper would have registered much higher on the meter.

ZAININGER: I was surprised when I first heard about it a few years ago. Wow, you really mean that there's something out there where students can submit papers and it would be an assurance that this is their own work.

Zaininger has been a teacher for more than 20 years. She says she used to detect plagiarism on her own. But the Internet made that harder. Zaininger says there's so much information out there, and teachers don't know if students are using it properly. She says Turnitin.com helps.

The program checks student papers against a database of journals, Internet content and other student work. Zaininger says if the program catches someone, it can help improve their writing. But at least one educator says the program isn't always a learning tool.

JANANGELO: I think too often we're sicking machines on students. Joe

Janangelo is a writing expert who teaches at Loyola University.

He says sites like Turnitin.com can teach students about plagiarism. But sometimes, he says it can create a cops and robbers relationship between teachers and students. And...

JANANGELO: If we want to use technology to catch criminals, we might just make better criminals, better, more savvy criminals.

On the ground, there's another story. Some students say programs like Turnitin just make the writing process more complicated. Kelly Cummings just graduated from Naperville North.

CUMMINGS: I just hated having to do the extra step. It's like the teachers don't believe that we're doing our own works and so, 'Oh, turn it it to turnitin.com and that'll prove that it's your own work.'

For a long time, teachers have used technology to try and fight plagiarism. Dr. Barbara Glatt is one of the industry's pioneers. She started a company in Chicago in the 80's. Glatt says students have always tried to get away with shortcuts.

GLATT: I would love to see plagiarism disappear but unfortunately there are as many reasons as one can think of as to why people resort to it.

There's sports, the school paper, student council -- all kinds of activities that colleges look for on applications. Glatt says the pressure is one reason students turn to plagiarism. But Glatt says cheating stands directly in the way of learning. And as long as students try to cheat, people like her will be there to try and stop them.

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