Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Contract Cheating

Some interesting articles have shown up recently about the topic of "contract cheating" - students using Web 2.0 bidding sites to find a lowest bidder willing to do their homework for them for a price. Often, the coders or writers are to be found in developing countries.
In German, Spiegel Online author Sebastian Wieschowski has also reported on this phenomenon: Bestnoten mit Billigcode aus Bangladesch (good grades with cheap code from Bangladesch).

Sunday, March 15, 2009

German University Takes Back Nine Doctorates

According to the German online magazine Spiegel Online, the University of Hanover has taken back nine doctorates in law which were granted between 1998 and 2005.

A law professor, Thomas A., from the university had taken in much money from lawyers and judges who wanted to have the coveted "Dr." to put in front of their names. Unlike the States, where the President, Vice President, and First Lady all have JD degrees but don't get called "Dr.", in Germany you can have the title put on your passport, bolted on your door, and make everyone call you "Dr. X".

At least eight lawyers (a number of them public servants and district attorneys) and one judge so desperately coveted that title - but didn't have the time to do the work - that they engaged a "doctoral consultant". They paid the company, in this case the "Institut für Wissenschaftsberatung" in Bergisch Gladbach, a fee, the company bribed the law professor, and they were soon awarded their degrees.

Fifty-nine more cases are pending.

Prof. A. took in over 150,000 Euros from candidates, receiving 2000 Euros for accepting a candidate and getting a bonus of 2000 Euros when it was completed. The potential doctors paid up to 25,000 Euros for their titles, for which there is normally no fee assessed.

A. was taken to court and found guilty of being bribed. He was sentenced to three years in prison, which is enough so that he loses his pension as well. The scam came to light as students requested in 2004 that A. not be on their examining committee because they did not want to appear to have purchased their grades. The university informed the legal authorities, who began an investigation. In September 2007 Prof. A. admitted to his deeds. During the court case in Hildesheim it was discovered that he not only took money, but also sexual favors for better grades.

The company is now bankrupt and the consultant, Martin D., has been in prison since the middle of last year on charges of bribery. He was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison.

The university decided to take back the nine doctorates, although most certainly most of the people involved will be taking the university to court on it - one has already filed, in the desperate hopes of overturning the university
decision on a technicality. Having to explain why the doctorate has suddenly disappeared might put a damper in one's career, although the person who had his doctorate taken back from the University of Tübingen on charges of blatant plagiarism has just gone to another university and taken a doctorate there. That university sees no problems with this.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

False Positives

Inside HigherEd reports on a plagiarism detection track at a large writing conference in San Francisco. Two important points from the article
  • One paper, given by a team from Texas Tech University, described an experiment in which they ran 400 papers (apparently of unknown plagiarism degree) through turnitin and SafeAssign. They discovered that the systems returned different values for degree of plagiarism (no suprise to me, as we almost never see identical values in our tests) and flagged many innocent bits as being potential plagiarisms. I cannot find a link to their paper, but the team is listed on the conference site as having given the session "Plagiarism Detection Technology: From the roundtable to the grail—deconstructing Turnitin and Safe Assignment" by Susan Lang, Laura Palmer, Monica Norris, and Kathleen Gillis.
  • Much more troubling was the discussion in this article about how iParadigms, the company that sells turnitin, paid for the travel of some researchers who were giving (positive) talks about turnitin. Shouldn't a researcher, who perhaps has no travel money, at least tell the audience listening who paid for the travel? I realize this is rather like the company purchasing an ad on the first slide, but isn't it more transparent than a speaker saying nothing?
There are some good discussion posts at the end of the article (and a kind comment on this blog).

Monday, March 9, 2009

Umeå Study of Plagiarism Detection Software

An article in a Lund, Sweden, student newspaper I found complained that the university's choice of plagiarism detection software was bad because it only found 25% of the plagiarisms in a study done in 2006 by the University of Umeå.

After some unsucessful Googling I entered in a few words from the article and quickly found them in the abstract of two reports from 2006:
  • Anna Nordström och Susanne Sjöberg: UTVÄRDERING AV URKUND, ETT VERKTYG FÖR PLAGIATKONTROLL. Oktober 2006. Report 16 (yes, the names of the reports seem to be a sick joke of the IT department on this sociology unit)
The first is a report commissioned from CERUM by an organisational unit of the University of Umeå about a test of the Swedish plagiarism detection software Urkund. CERUM is the Center for Regional Studies at the University of Umeå.

The university purchased a license for Urkund for four departments at the school for a year and had CERUM look at the usability, effectiveness, and moral problems associated with the use of the software. They interviewed teachers and students prior to and after use and describe very clearly the issues found. Among them:
  • Teachers found the system easy to use, as students send their papers to an email address at Urkund. They then send on the paper to the teachers and later send a report on anything found to the teachers. This does, however, pose a problem as student's email addresses are used as the subject line and were often difficult to connect up to real names.
  • Teachers felt that the system was effective.
  • Using the system didn't save any time, but they feel that it is important for them to deal with plagiarism.
  • Teachers and students alike felt that using the system worked as a deterrent to plagiarism.
  • Students were generally happy with the software and had no moral or ethical problems, as they felt that everyone was being handled equally, something that is very important for Swedes.
  • There was no mention made of the copyright problems. Urkund keeps a copy of all papers unless the students answer their acknowledgement email and request their paper not be put in a database.
  • Neither teachers nor students felt that there was a problem in their relationship with each other based on the use of this system.
In order to test the effectiveness of the system, CERUM requested the four departments give them some common texts from textbooks, online resources, and magazines from their field, as well as from the Internet. Urkund says that it checks the Internet, many publications (including the Swedish National Encyclopedia), and of course their own database.

The researchers added material on their own in order to have 20 sources for each department. They then constructed test material (it is not clear from the report if they put all into one text or made a few papers, the report states differently in different chapters) and ran it through Urkund. Only 18 of the 80 sources were found by Urkund, a rather sorry result.

While the investigation was being done, it was discovered that there were a handful of teachers at the school using the Genuine Text system. This Swedish system, which according to their web page is used in Sweden, Denmark, Russia, and some parts of Africa, only searches the Internet and its own database. It is a web-based system that has three ways of submitting: students upload a file, teachers upload files, or they copy and paste material into a field. They offer statistics for administrators and plagiarism reports that are suitable for submitting to the appropriate disciplinary bodies. It is not clear from the report if students have a way of opting out of having their material stored in the database.

CERUM was commissioned to have a look at this as well, and they interviewed the teachers and students who had similar responses as the Urkund subjects. Interestingly enough, although Genuine Text does not test publication data bases, they managed to score 22 out of 80 plagiarisisms found. There were only 14 plagiarisms from the Internet, Genuine Text found 7 of them.

Both reports lead me to the following conclusions:
  • The software proved just as ineffective in these tests as in mine. They find about half of the Internet sources and very little else.
  • Teachers are so happy to have something found, that they believe it to be effective.
  • The major use of plagiarism detection software is in deterrance. I found many forums in which students wondered how good the systems really were and what their chances for being found out were. There were tips being given on changing around words so as to confuse the system. Unfortunately, this works for many software systems, although Google can often deal with changed word order.
  • No one considers copyright (or patent!) issues in student works, universities and companies keep copies without explicit permission, as would be necessary by EU copyright law.
  • If the students are informed properly (orally and in writing) about the use of the software, they are happy about it being used.
I am attempting to contact the authors, who are no longer with the department, to see if I can find further information about the study.