Backups as an anti-plagiarism tool

Over several decades in academia, any professor is likely to encounter at least a few cases of plagiarism from foolish students. One of the most pernicious types of plagiarism involves theft of papers from a roommate's computer. The story usually goes something like this:

• Incompetent, disorganized student fails to prepare an essay that account for a significant part of his grade in a course that is required for completion of their degree.

• Desperate, the dilatory student realizes that his or her roommate, who is taking the same course, has already completed the assignment.

• Dishonest student takes advantage of roommate's absence to break into the poorly secured system – either simply by using the computer when it has not been locked or by learning or receiving the roommate's password.

• Plagiarizing student copies the draft or final version of the term paper, puts own name on it and submit it in place of the missing essay.

• Honest student, not having any idea of the theft, also hands in own paper shortly thereafter – and gets accused of plagiarism.

In class after class, I try to drum into my students that one of the best classes of evidence of their authorship of any work is a trail of backups with a version number for each file.

Here is a simple process for establishing a trail of evidence of ownership:

• Each time they open the current version of the document for the first time on a particular day, they should immediately save a new version of the document within incremented version number. For example, if yesterday's file is called < is342_term-paper_1_v06.docx > then today's file is immediately saved as < is342_term-paper_1_v07.docx >.

• At the end or beginning of every day, a student should make an encrypted differential backup that includes all files changed during the last 24 hours.

• A copy of the backup should be stored on a separate, removable device such as a portable hard disk or a flash drive – and that backup should be kept securely away from the computer itself. Typically, students can simply carry these small devices in their pockets, briefcases, purses or knapsacks.

If a thief takes control of the term paper and claims ownership, the victim immediately has an electronic trail that effectively proves that they, and not the thief, worked on the paper. Even if the thief steals the backups from the hard drive, their encryption should prevent exploitation. Having the document trail at hand makes it impossible for the thief to successfully claim ownership of the term paper.

Finally, students living in dormitories and sharing a dorm room with others should use the following simple precautions:

• Use whole-disk encryption on your personal computer.

• Lock your computer when you leave your room – no matter how soon you think you will return.

• Be sure that your password cannot easily be guessed: don't use anything that is related to family, hobbies, courses; best is to generate an easily-remembered password that isn't a real word.

• Don't use the same password for your encrypted backups that you do for login to your computer or for access to your university network. Every password should be different.

• Set a timeout on your computer so that it locks automatically after a reasonable period of inactivity. You will have to decide what's reasonable as a function of your normal use patterns. For example, if you rarely go more than, say, 20 minutes without activity on your system while you are working, then use 20 minutes as your timeout. Adjust the timeout so that it does not irritate you – otherwise you'll end up deactivating it.

I'll be posting this advice for my own students; I hope that readers from other universities will feel free to use or adapt this article for their own students' use.

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