To some, the lure of the Internet is an on-line chat with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. To others, it's 100 different Web sites dedicated to Xena: Warrior Princess. Sometimes, it's just two words:tampanude.com.
But for many of the nation's 14-million college students, the Internet is an up-to-the-minute virtual library. And in a growing trend that alarms some professors, it's also increasingly the place to go for ready-made term papers.
The Paper Shack, The Source and Nate's Free Reports are among numerous Web sites that offer term papers and essays that can be downloaded free of charge. Other sites are out to make a profit on their products and require a credit card number and a fee of $20 to $40.
Most or all of these sites contain a disclaimer stating that "term papers on the Internet are for research purposes only" and aren't to be passed off as a student's work. But that doesn't always square with site titles such as Evil House of Cheat, or with the requests made by some surfers _ "I desperately need a paper on sanitation in restaurants for my sanitation class. Please somebody help me!!!!!!!"
"I think all of higher education is concerned," says Bob Sullins, dean of undergraduate education and community college relations at the University of South Florida. "In the long term, it may not present a problem. But in the short term it does."
Services peddling other people's term papers existed before the Net, as have informal paper files among fraternity houses and other groups.
But Debbie Thorne LeClair, director of the Center for Ethics at the University of Tampa, says the Internet "opens up a whole new arena."
"Most professors expect that term papers are the product of individual or group work," LeClair said. "There could be some major problems, depending on the class. I think it's a serious problem for classes and professors that give generalized assignments."
LeClair said the key to preventing plagiarism, on the Net or otherwise, is to create a more specific curriculum.
"I think the first step professors need to take is to raise their own awareness of what's available to students on the Net," LeClair said. "I think the second is that professors need to develop curriculum that's specific in design so that students aren't given the opportunity to use someone else's work."
LeClair gives the example of her own class, a business course, where "we work on real business cases or real business situations, and it would be difficult to use someone else's work within that design."
Teachers and professors readily embrace the Internet as a reference tool and often have their own rules and standards for listing a Web site in an essay or paper's bibliography. However, when it comes to the Internet, the medium tends to move faster than the debate can.
On a site called Other People's Papers, there ranges work on subjects as specific as Paul McCartney's role in the Beatles to the 19th Century Women's Reform Movement. Curriculum specificity also might be difficult at larger colleges, where one class can number 100 or more students.
Freedom of expression is a hallmark of the Internet, and many say that to be fair, a number of students who do post their papers on the Web do so to make their opinions, thoughts and theories available to the widest audience possible.
"As far as making one particular paper available, it's really just self-publishing," says Mason Mulholland, one of the founding owners of the Infohaus, an Internet counseling company.
"The typical uproar about the Net is unjustified. Anybody can find most of what they want in a public library," Mulholland says. As far as Net plagiarism goes, he says that "it's no different than a freshman getting a senior's paper and turning it in, only you can do it cross-country."
Mulholland also says that when students do donate or post their work, intangibles such as writing styles and circumstance ultimately make a term paper or thesis "more of a template than anything."
Though the temptation and potential for Net plagiarism may seem ominous, some students agree with Mulholland when he says critics overstate the dangers.
Noel Rizzuto, a 26-year-old marine science major at the University of Tampa, says that while there's an abundance of material available on the Web, quantity doesn't necessarily equal quality.
"There's a problem with using the Internet for doing research in my field, what I'm doing, you have to use primary literature _ journals and studies that have been performed by experts in their field," Rizzuto said."Most of what I find on the Net tends to be very generalized information. And you never really know what you're getting.
"If you're pulling papers off of the Internet at the college level, you're a moron anyway and when it comes time to graduate and get a job, it all comes out in the wash."