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Plagiarizing code for computer programming assignments

Plagiarism is a serious issue in education, computer science in particular. It is the deadly combination of a confused student with ease and availability of sample source code, that facilitates such behaviour. I already wrote on the issue of Plagiarism in Education, examining the motives, means, and consequences. Today I am forced to bring up the topic of copying code again.

Will S. has brought to my attention that one school board (that among other things acts as an ISP for all affeliated schools) is filtering out my domain.

Hello Tony,

I contacted the admin folks at my school board and they indicated that compsci.ca is blocked because of a request from a teacher at another school. This teacher requested it to be blocked because students were copying code from compsci.ca and using the code in their assignments.


For those not familiar with the larger CompSci.ca, there is also an active community forum that serves as one of the few resources available for the Turing programming language – popular in highschools across Ontario, Canada. Many students come there for additional help, resources, and tutorials on the programming topics they want to improve upon. Every month, the top search queries for this domain are:

  • turing tutorials
  • turing help
  • turing download

It is clear that the majority are simply looking for help with a difficult subject. Now a school board in London, Ontario has blocked this resource to the 23,000 students they represent.

My previous stance on plagiarizm of computer code was that it is actually much easier to catch an offender. Simply ask. From the feedback, most seem to agree:

“when his teacher asked him to explain some of the advanced concepts in the program he got busted”

“Needless to say they got caught pretty easily as they had no idea what on earth the code meant.”

“if someone is too lazy to write out a simple program themselves, then they will inevitably be caught.”

The problem, and the solution, are not in the availability of information. This school domain filter is equivalent to restricting library access during school hours. Sounds like non-sense? It should! Writing code is very much like writing an essay, and the students will have this resource available from home requardless of what the school board does.

The solution is with the teacher. In this particular case, it is already known that students copy some of the sample source code, and even where from. It would have been so simple to isolate and deal with those cases. Instead I suspect that restricting students’ access to help and tutorials they need, will only hinder their attempts at understanding the concepts required for the programming assignments copied in the first place.

I stand by my previous conclusion: “An excellent check would be to have students explain the code, not just through comments, but with a very quick verbal presentation. It should be pretty obvious what a student is capable of.”

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  1. Posted by Andrew Ingram | December 15, 2006, 4:02 pm

    My comp sci department at university (University of Warwick, England) had (i’ve left, but I assume this still applies) has their own plagiarism-detection software. All code assignments are submitted through this and it’s almost impossible to trick (it’s extremely strict and can cope with significant refactors) and anything that’s flagged is then checked manually.

    I know someone who did a project to try and improve it and in doing so they found very few ways of plagiarising code so that it couldn’t be detected. Basically the only way to get by it was to have enough understanding of the solution to have been able to produce it yourself.

    It’s probably got some flaws but the university doesn’t block any websites and there wouldn’t be any point anyway. Anyone who’s serious about plagiarising can just go and use a different computer network.

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  2. Posted by Freakman | December 15, 2006, 8:44 pm

    I said it before, and I’ll say it again. If someone gets copies someone else’s source, and they can’t explain what it does, they’re going to get caught pretty quickly.

    The whole idea that students have to run off to steal source code just to pass a course should be flag to educators though. They should be asking themselves, “Are the concepts actually being taught, and if so, are they being taught properly?”.

    I found that last year (in a grade 10 Comp Sci class, teaching Turing), and that so many students were doing poorly in the class simply because not enough time had been spent on the basic concepts. Instead, everything was pushed into graphics and games, and people suffered from it.

    In the end, my point is: If students are resorting to stealing code that they should be capable to write, are they being taught what they need to know to begin with?

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