Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Problem of Plagiarism

I am a lecturer in the School of Computing, Dublin Institute of Technology. One of my duties is as Final Year Project Co-ordinator for one of our undergraduate degrees - DT228, BSc in Computer Science. This means I help organise the process of students undertaking final year projects. I usually give the students a number of talks over the year on their projects - software methodologies, creativity and critical thinking, plagiarism, technical writing, etc.

Also I monitor all of the projects to ensure that no plagiarism is committed, and unfortunately each year at least one, but usually two (out of 50+) students commit some form of plagiarism.

These violations occur in a range of ways, for example;
* Copying text from online sources without correctly attributing
* Copying software from the web without correctly attributing
* Copying results from other people without crediting
* Buying projects online

What is so sad is that the copying students normally cut-and-paste without any changes at all, I suppose they are afraid that if they change anything none of it will make sense. Unfortunately this means that locating copied materials is very easy to find, which I do so every year. Students who copy projects for the web often keep the same project title, which is just silly, it becomes a trivial matter to locate the source of work. As a computer scientist I have been using the World Wide Web since 1993, that is 14 years of searching and locating materials on the web. When I started in 1993 Google hadn't even been created, other search engines existed before Google; WebCrawler, HotBot, AltaVista, etc. So just because a student copies and tries to rewrite in such a way that it can't be located on Google, that doesn't mean it can't be found.

More disturbingly is that recently there are many reports in Ireland of students buying projects online, this is a source of great sadness to me. I really think it is better to do a really crappy project yourself and just manage a pass, rather than cheat and get a good result. In both cases you'll get a degree, but in one case you learn absolutely nothing about software engineering (but a little about online financial transactions), whereas in the other case, you struggle hard for 5-6 months, you learn to design, develop and test a large software system, and expand your skillset. Honestly, getting a good result in your degree is not at all of value compared to having good skills for your longterm career.

Sadly in the past few years I have had to register as a developer on a number of sites that sell software, for example;,, etc. to see if I can spot projects that sound like our proposals. Not much spotted so far, but I am dreading the day when I see one of the proposals on one of these sites. The real problem is that if I don't spot it early on, I will definitely discover it later, what students don't seem to know is that these sites usually put some (hidden) markers in the code and/or in images to indicate the providence of software, these are easy to find when you know where to look, as I do.

BOTTOM LINE: Copying is for losers.

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