Online notes: cheating or research?

Josh Coffman

English professor Joe Glaser has dealt with plagiarism before.

Several years ago, one of Glaser’s graduate students handed in a plagiarized paper – it cited copyrighted material without using footnotes to document sources.

When Glaser confronted the student, she said it wasn’t her fault – she bought the paper from a student in Louisville. She claimed that if she didn’t write it, she didn’t plagiarize it.

While most students are aware of the possible consequences of turning in plagiarized material, some still try to pass off stolen work as their own.

Now, with millions of sites on the Internet providing free information, students may find the temptation to cheat even more alluring.

But teachers warn that with the easy access to cheat also comes an easier way to discover who’s cheating., an internet-based site, refers to itself as “the most popular educational Web site in the world.”

Its extensive study guides and more than 1,100 message boards allow students to access information on subjects ranging from literature and drama to math and astronomy.

While most students use the information on to help them get better grades, a few may use it to cheat.

Justin Kestler, editorial director of, said his company receives very few complaints from instructors regarding plagiarism.

“I could count on one hand every time a teacher has had a problem,” he said.

Kestler said, which is owned by bookstore chain Barnes & Noble, receives about 1,000 compliments from teachers for every complaint it gets.

“We get tons of endorsements from teachers,” he said. “Some mention it in their syllabuses. We hope to encourage reading and to supplement the learning process.”

SparkNotes, founded in 1999 by a group of Harvard seniors, has over 4 million registered users and gets several million hits per day.

Kestler did say visitors to the site could potentially cut and paste their way to a book report.

“Anyone certainly could do that, but I doubt they’d have success,” he said. “The style we write with (on the site), it can’t be cut and pasted.”

Kestler sees his site as an online resource to help students do better, not an avenue to cheat.

“It’s more than a ‘Cliff’s Notes’ knock-off,” he said. “It’s so much bigger than that. It’s a resource – above and beyond that, it’s a community.”

Elizabethtown freshman Cliff Skees said he never turns in copied class work. He said professors’ strict policies on assignments, such as the requirement of a works cited page, makes it tough to get away with plagiarism.

Rachel Ezell, a graduate student from Auburn, agrees.

“I think the professors are very clear about plagiarism,” she said. “I know someone who’s been warned before (by an instructor) just because she didn’t cite stuff.”

The Western Student Handbook, last updated on July 18, states that there are penalties in place for those who are caught plagiarizing. It states that academic dishonesty, such as cheating or plagiarism, can result in a failing grade without allowing the student to withdraw.

“The academic work of a student must be his/her own,” it states on page 6. “One must give any author credit for source material borrowed from him/her. To lift content directly from a source without giving credit is a flagrant act. To present a borrowed passage without reference to the source after having changed a few words is also plagiarism.”

The handbook states that theft or sale of tests is to be reported to the Office of Student Life for disciplinary action.

Glaser, now the Composition Director of Western’s English Department, said plagiarism incidents are usually kept between the offending student and the instructor.

He added that the quality of papers available online is “all over the lot.” Some are good, others bad.

But Glaser warned that the Internet doesn’t only make it easier for students to cheat but also makes it easier for teachers to catch them.

“You can usually put three or four words in a Google search engine and find the paper,” he said.