Penn State Cracks Down on Plagiarism

Admissions Director Carrie Marcinkevage was sitting in her office reviewing business school application essays last February when she stumbled on a sentence that bore an uncanny resemblance to an essay she had just finished reading. The essay, one of five required in the application, asked students to discuss the connections between principled leadership and business.

"I had that inevitable moment of 'Oh gosh, I swear I have seen this sentence before,' " says Marcinkevage, who heads the MBA admissions office at Pennsylvania State University's Smeal College of Business (Smeal Full-Time MBA Profile).

She pulled out the essay where she remembered seeing the phrase and compared the two side by side. To her dismay, she discovered both applicants had used the exact same sentence.

The problem soon proved to be bigger than Marcinkevage could ever have anticipated. Over the next few days, she and her admissions staff combed through 360 pending applications submitted for Smeal's 2010 admissions cycle, even reviewing those submitted by applicants who had already been admitted or invited to the school for an interview.

They uncovered 29 cases of students who had lifted entire sentences or paragraphs from online sources, including a 2009 essay titled "Principled Leaders: A Model for the 'Reset' Economy," by Deborah Merrill-Sands, then dean of Simmons School of Management (Simmons Full-Time MBA Profile) in Boston. The case was even more surprising because all applicants to Smeal are asked to sign an honor code before submitting the application. Said Marcinkevage: "It was the perfect storm of plagiarism."

Plagiarism Detection

For the past decade or so, universities have taken a more aggressive stand on cheating in the classroom, using plagiarism-detection software on student research papers, opening up state-of-the-art testing centers designed to prevent cheating, and implementing honor codes. But up until now, little attention has been paid in the academic world to plagiarism in admissions essays, and few tools are available to admissions officers to help them uncover students who use fraudulent content in applications.

That could soon change, as companies like iParadigms, which created the website to check student research papers for plagiarism, now turn their attention to the admissions realm. In December 2009, iParadigms launched a Turnitin for Admissions service, a software application that scans essays, personal statements, and scholarship essays for evidence of plagiarism. Penn State's Smeal is the first business school to publicly announce it's using the service, and Marcinkevage says she is hoping she'll be able to convince more B-schools to sign on in the coming year.

About 100 universities use the Turnitin admissions service, but dozens more may follow suit in the coming year as awareness of the problem continues to grow, says Jeff Lorton, the product and business development manager at iParadigms. Lorton declined to name the other institutions that are using the service. "We're working with hundreds of schools right now interested in getting this into their admissions office," Lorton says.

New Partnership

He's hoping the service will grow in popularity this year due to a new partnership iParadigms recently formed with Hobsons, a company that runs an online application management system called ApplyYourself, which is used by hundreds of colleges and universities to manage the admissions process.

The partnership will allow any institution that uses ApplyYourself to integrate the Turnitin admissions service into its online application system. Peter Pravikoff, vice-president of sales and marketing at Hobsons, says he plans to market the new service to the more than 500 programs that use the ApplyYourself system, of which 100, or 20 percent, are business programs. Over the next year, he'll be talking to schools like Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management (Kellogg Full-Time MBA Profile), Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business (Tuck Full-Time MBA Profile), and the UCLA Anderson School of Management (Anderson Full-Time MBA Profile) about using the tool.

"I think this issue is about to bubble up and become a major concern for schools," Pravikoff says. "I've had a couple of discussions with business schools on this topic and I think they are going to be at the leading edge of the adoption curve."

Business schools could prove to be one of the prime markets for Turnitin's new admissions service. Several high-profile cheating scandals have already rocked the B-school world in recent years, including a 2007 incident at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business (Fuqua Full-Time MBA Profile) that resulted in the suspension or expulsion of two dozen MBA students accused of cheating on a final exam.More recently at the University of Central Florida, a professor accused one-third of his 600-person class of cheating on a midterm.In 2008, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which publishes the GMAT, revoked the scores of 84 test-takers found to have used a Chinese website to tip off others about questions appearing on the test.GMAC continued the crackdown in 2009, revoking dozens more test scores and shutting down another Chinese website supplying live GMAT questions for a fee.

Call to Action

For Smeal's Marcinkevage, the widespread problem she uncovered during the application process last year has served as a call to action. She is working to curb plagiarism not just at her school but at business schools across the country, she says.

Her first task was to address the plagiarism cases her admissions staff unearthed during their extensive review of applications last winter. Of the 29 applicants suspected of using unattributed content in their essays, one had already been admitted to the school; the admissions team decided to revoke its admissions decision on that candidate, Marcinkevage says. Fifteen of the applicants were denied admission without an interview. Nine applicants had upcoming interviews scheduled with the school, which were subsequently canceled. Four of the applicants were "borderline" cases, and the school asked them to rewrite their essay on principled leadership. Two of the four were subsequently admitted, and one of the two accepted the offer.

Smeal declined to give out the names or contact information of the applicants who were involved in the plagiarism scandal, citing confidentiality concerns.

The process of identifying which applicants may have used fraudulent content was a time-consuming task for the admissions team that took several days, a process that Marcinkevage says she hoped to avoid in the future. Soon after the incident last winter, she stumbled on the Turnitin for Admissions service and hired it to review all future admission essays for authenticity. The service runs all of Smeal's submitted admissions essays through the software, which checks them against Turnitin's massive database of published and unpublished content. Turnitin then alerts the school to anything it considers suspect. Two members of the admissions team, including Marcinkevage, review the questionable essays before coming to a decision on whether plagiarism occurred.

"One of the arguments I've heard against the software is, 'Oh my goodness, you are letting the software make the admissions decisions,' " Marcinkevage says. "The answer there is clearly and absolutely no. There are multiple human checks."

Students to Hire Pro Writers?

Donald McCabe, a Rutgers University professor who's done research on cheating on college applications, says he is concerned about Smeal's decision to hire a plagiarism-checking service like Turnitin to address the problem. To avoid being flagged by the service, more students may choose to hire professional essay writers to draft their personal statements and other application essays. That could put students who don't have the financial resources to do this at a disadvantage, he says.

"I'm not convinced that you are catching the right people necessarily," he says. "You're putting students on notice and from the students' perspective, if they definitely want to get into Smeal, they'll do something else, especially if they have extra money to pay for personalized essay services."

But he concedes the trend is likely to take off, as the Smeal incident puts pressure on other schools to take preventive measures of their own. "Other schools are going to follow suit. They almost have to," McCabe says.

For now, Smeal is working to ensure applicants are educated about plagiarism when they go through the admissions process. Marcinkevage has produced a webcast addressing integrity in the MBA admissions process that can now be found on iTunesU, and has also addressed the topic in blogs, social media, admissions events, and individual meetings with candidates.

Beyond that, Marcinkevage is planning to send a letter this month to dozens of business school admissions directors throughout the country, inviting them to join a Google (GOOG) group she's formed. She is hoping to raise awareness and get admissions officers to share tips and suggestions on how they've coped with plagiarism at their school, she says. This summer she hopes to lead an information session on the topic at GMAC's annual conference in Boston.

"I want to talk to people about how to prevent it because I feel that is the most important part of the puzzle," says Marcinkevage. "I don't know if I can get this movement started, but I'd sure like to try."