Ephorus, anti-plagiarism software for teachers

2008-04-13 18:30:00

Recently, we were discussing a few anti-plagiarism measures over at the Scholieren.com forums. Plagiarism of course being a rather stupid and bad thing to do if you want any form of education.

One of the checks so far is to just take any suspect sentences and plonk them into Google. This actually works miraculously well, seeing how Google indexes the hell out of half the Internet. The only downside to this approach is that you really only ought to apply it to suspected plagiarism, because you really can't copy and paste a whole document into Google's search bar.

To make things easier, some people have tried their hand at making a Google frontend, but with little success. So we'll have to turn to commercial companies who have their proprietary front ends and search methods.

Enter Ephorus, stage left.

Ephorus anti-plagiarism

On their website, Ephorus boast about their services like any good marketeer would. The emphasis in the following is mine.

Never search for plagiarism yourself again? An end to all irritations and qualitatively better papers? No problem. With Ephorus, you can prevent plagiarism with no extra effort. Moreover, with this anti-plagiarism market leader, you will be assured of the best service and the lowest prices. With Ephorus, teaching will be fun again!

Not only teachers and students benefit from Ephorus. Examination boards also see an improvement in the quality of papers. And since teachers no longer lose precious time investigating possible plagiarism, more time can be devoted to education.

Alright, sounds like a sales pitch, right? :) You'll notice that I bolded out two fragments that are rather important: they make it sound like Ephorus is the end-all-be-all solution to spot plagiarism. Sadly, this is simply not true. I'll explain this in a little detail shortly, but the gist of it is that Ephorus only checks materials they have access to through the Internet (eg Google search) and from their own database.

Ironically, their best source of original texts and information are their own clients. By submitting a document for verification, the customer allows Ephorus to keep said document in their database for future reference. This is also why recently students have been clamouring about copyrights on their documents. While teachers and schools are made aware of the fact that documents will be stored indefinitely, students are never told such a thing. The only thing they see is an upload form that asks for their details. No warnings, no disclaimers, no nothing. I guess Ephorus leaves that up to their customers.

The legalities behind all this are debatable. There's such a thing as fair use for academic purposes, but one could reason that Ephorus' goals are not purely academic.

Toying with Ephorus: a cursory glance

My initial impressions of Ephorus were good! The interface looks clean, well designed and calm. There's nothing there to confuse you and it's a good example of form following function. The interfaces is divided into a few sections:

You will find screenshots of most parts of Ephorus at the bottom of this page.

So far I've found a few small nags with the Ephorus online interface.

All in all I'm well pleased with the Ephorus interface. It's user friendly enough and is pleasing to the eye.

Testing Ephorus on some real documents

Of course, what would a software review be without putting it through its paces?

I've selected a few documents from my own schoolwork and a few other sources and I've submitted them to Ephorus. These documents are:

Analysis 1, DO10 One of my original works and never before published on the Internet.
Statistics 1, DO5 One of my original works and available on my website since last year.
Border-line op school A document written by one of my project team members at school. Never before published on the Internet. Also, at least 40% of the text was copied straight from books.
Pride and prejudice Well, we all know this book, right? The classic by Jane Austen which has been freely available on the Internet for years.

The first document came out as expected and only slight traces of "plagiarism" were found. It scored a 3%, 2% of which was accredited to other documents that I'd written. Ephorus has marked parts of my cover page and my student information as being straight copies, which isn't remarkable. The final 1% came from the fact that I had literally quoted one paragraph (properly cited by the way) from a book.

By turning up the strictness a notch, another 2% were added to my score. Apparently the words Maar dat was niet het doel van were found on two separate pages on the Internet.

The second document I'd submitted came out as expected as well: 96%. Of course, I'd expected a 100%, because the file itself has been on my website for over half a year now. So that's a bit odd. What's even stranger is that the cover page and information that was picked up for the first document wasn't flagged at all this time.

Disturbingly, my group member's document scored a measly 3%, in spite of his liberal copying. This can only be accredited to the fact that Ephorus cannot and does not search through books. Ephorus only relies on digital resources that it has free access to.

Finally, Jane Austen's Pride and prejudice was properly picked up at 98%. It would've been scary if Ephorus'd missed out on this ^_^

Personally, I think that the look and feel of the reports are just right. They could've been much prettier, or take the original document's formatting into account, but I reckon that would detract from its purpose. The reports offer just what a professor would need:

Fiddling with the strictness controls shows me that it modifies the amount of words that do NOT have to be similar in one sentence. By setting the level to "strict", Ephorus will also point out any lines that share a number of words (but not all of them) with another source.

In conclusion

Earlier, I promised to tell you why Ephorus isn't the end-all-be-all solution to plagiarism. And it's not something that only applies to Ephorus, but something that goes for all of its competitors as well.

This software does not search books, magazines, research papers and other published print.

Case in point: my classmates document came through fine. This means that teachers will always need to be on the lookout for plagiarism anyway. Ephorus and its ilk are just a first barrier that documents need to get through. And it's in that respect that I quite like Ephorus.

I'm glad that the Ephorus team gave me the chance to try out their software. I'm convinced that it makes a nice addition to the teacher's toolbox, even if it doesn't save him much work.














The Ephorus name and logo are of course copyright of Ephorus. All my screenshots were taken using the demo version of their website.

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