During the spring of 1990, 239 MIT students were enrolled in the course Introduction to Computers and Problem Solving. One night, a student tipped Professor Nigel Wilson indicating that his fellow students had been collaborating more than he believed they should. So Professor Wilson and his assistant decided to investigate.

The results were astonishing: 80 of 239 had plagiarized code, and 73 were consequently disciplined. To date, the scandal was the biggest in MIT’s 129 year history.

Computer Science Today

Obviously, the world of technology has changed dramatically since 1990. Many people associate CS students with Zuckerberg, Dorsey, and other tech billionaires under the age of 30.

Last year, 12% of US adults reported starting a business, up from 8% the previous year. Salaries for CS majors are also increasing–a Carnegie Mellon graduate can expect to make $84,400 his or her first year after college.

As a result:

  1. More students are choosing CS as their major. CS is Stanford’s most popular major, up 40% from last year.
  2. More non-major students are enrolling in CS classes. UPenn’s introductory CS class has nearly doubled from 250 to 450 in the past 3 years.
  3. Massive numbers of foreigners are enrolling in MOOCs–74% of Coursera’s 4.1 million registrants are from foreign countries.

Thus, to no surprise, CS is booming in nearly every way.

So is plagiarism booming too?

Plagiarism Today

Since 1990, many cheating scandals have headlined national media. Here are some notable scandals:

Georgia Tech, 2002

“187 Georgia Tech students are facing accusations of cheating by collaborating on a computer science class project… The accusation is aimed at a group of primarily freshman and sophomore students in two different fall 2001 courses, Introduction to Computing, and Object Oriented Programming.”

RMIT University, Melbourne Australia, 2003

“A student in a computer science class at RMIT had just submitted a correct answer, but it was to a problem solving assignment set the previous year.
It didn’t take long before Professor Zobel’s investigations led to the discovery of Melbourne’s biggest exam cheating scandal, in which Mr Chung, 33, a PhD student from North Melbourne, was at the heart. The scam was simple. Students paid Mr Chung to provide computer solutions, complete assignments and to sit their exams.”

Stanford University, 2010

“Allegations of cheating at Stanford University have more than doubled in the past decade, with the largest number of violations involving computer science students. In 10 years, the number of cases investigated by the university’s Judicial Panel has climbed from 52 to 123.”

Due note that these cases are the few that received nationally attention from the media. No doubt, there are many more. I witnessed it while studying CS at UPenn myself.

How often does plagiarism occur today?

In order to identify plagiarism, some teachers use software to identify similarity in code. The two most popular options are MOSS (Measure of Software Similarity) and JPlag.

Screenshot of MOSS’ results

Professor Alex Aiken developed MOSS in 1994 at Berkeley. Now at Stanford, he still manages MOSS, which is free for teachers or educational staff members.

Though, even despite the fact that MOSS has “several thousand users,” students still plagiarize. MOSS founder Aiken reported in 2000:

“I have anecdotal evidence from colleagues that have used MOSS that confirms it—10 percent is what you get when people are supposed to be doing the right thing.”

So with MOSS catching 10% of its submissions, one can assume the service works somewhat well, thereby attracting more usage.

However, in 2001, 7 years after MOSS was created, the Joint Information Systems Committee at South Bank University in London surveyed 55 HE level computing schools, and the results were:

  • 17 out of 55 relied on visual inspection
  • 4 out of 55 used MOSS

This was 2001, so maybe more schools use it now (or they’ve developed their own system), but considering MOSS was developed in 1994, it’s doubtful.

MOOCs: A new era for plagiarism

Screenshot of Coursera’s “Honor Code” checkbox

As Udacity, Coursera, edX, and other MOOCs take off, plagiarism is going to increase dramatically. Nearly 80,000 students registered for UPenn Professor Kevin Werbach’s Gamification class, and 104,000 students registered for Coursera Founder Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning class.

If we take Aiken’s evidence and assume 10% of the students in these classes are plagiarizing, an estimated 18,400 students will plagiarize in these two classes.

Andrew Ng acknowledges this problem, and University of Michigan Professor Eric Rabkin posted a plea to his 39,000 students since there were “dozens of plagiarism incidents” in his Fantasy and Science Fiction course. One essay was even lifted directly from Wikipedia.

Are students more likely to plagiarize in MOOCs?

As education moves online, plagiarism may become easier. To combat this, companies are providing online proctors and analyzing students’ unique typing rhythms. Coursera now offers five classes for college credit. Coursera partnered with ProctorU, which offers remote proctoring through the student’s webcam.

However, if college credits are on the line for a fraction of the cost, I suspect a webcam will not stop a student from cheating.

Additionally, Georgia Tech now offers a $6,600 masters degree through Udacity. Some students might think the online class is an easy alternative to get ahead and save money by plagiarizing.


If you’re a computer science teacher or staff member, please email me at tonydiepenbrock[at]gmail. I’d love to learn more about your experiences with plagiarism, I might be able to help.

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