All their own work?

For web-savvy students there's never been an easier time to access information. Teachers say plagiarism is rare. Students tell a different story. Wendy Grossman on the battle to beat the cheats
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The Independent Online

Here's a (possibly apocryphal) tale told by a British student. Under extreme pressure of poor grades and lack of confidence, a student is told by a friend, "I know where you can get a term paper written a couple of years ago on the same subject that got a really good grade." The student downloads the paper off the internet and turns it in. It gets an A – and a note: "I have seen this paper four times now, and it gets better every time."

Here's a (possibly apocryphal) tale told by a British student. Under extreme pressure of poor grades and lack of confidence, a student is told by a friend, "I know where you can get a term paper written a couple of years ago on the same subject that got a really good grade." The student downloads the paper off the internet and turns it in. It gets an A – and a note: "I have seen this paper four times now, and it gets better every time."

There are dozens of sites, such as Essaybank.co.uk, that give away or sell pre-written term papers. But these are the least of the problem. There is so much information on the internet that it is almost impossible to think of a topic you can't find already covered in detail by a professional in the field. Book reviews, geology reports, machine translators, PhD theses, economic analyses, backgrounders – all legitimately there for the copying.

"There's a very fine line between plagiarism and putting large chunks of somebody else's work in your essay," says Ian Angell, a professor at the LSE. Although he stresses that plagiarism is unusual, he says it does happen, and in one case the student's degree was ultimately revoked. Angell believes that in any case the internet is going to force a complete re-evaluation of what it means to be educated. "A lot of education is down to memory dumps, and when you have memory at your fingertips what's the virtue? The virtue is in devising a search strategy." In fact, he says, the ready access to so much information means that the overall quality of essays has gone up.

Twenty years ago, if you wanted to reuse someone else's term paper, you had to retype it. Now, copying and pasting is so easy that a professor at Northern Illinois University in the US recently received two first-person essays dealing with young women's experiences of sexism and religion – both handed in by male students. Closer to home, a lecturer at one of Britain's most prestigious post-graduate establishments received a paper containing large sections copied from the lecturer's own book.

Officially, this kind of thing is being taken seriously at the university level. The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) is setting up a plagiarism advisory and detection service with an initial budget of £500,000 per year for the next two years. The project will cover both collusion (cases where students share work) and free text.

Gill Chester, head of JISC's Electronic Plagiarism Detection project, believes cheating is on the increase because more students are going on to university degrees who formerly might have gone to, for example, an HND. In addition, Britain has become much more credential-conscious. "The reason people go to university is very different now," says Chester. "They don't go because they love physics or they're good at maths, but because they need a job at the end." And cheating is by no means rare, according to JISC. In one survey, it found that in first-year computer science as many as 20 per cent of students would plagiarise, though the percentage drops in later years.

At the secondary school level, the National Union of Teachers does not regard copying from the internet as an issue, saying that the schools spot it if it happens. "The difficulty for the kids is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of their teachers," says an NUT spokesperson. "Over the years that kids have had increasing access to the internet there has been very, very little suggestion – except from journalists – that young people are trying to cheat."

But when you ask the kids themselves, you get a different story. Richard, an A-level student in Stepney, says some students "do definitely copy stuff off the internet and turn it in". Some pick off ready-made pieces from sites like Essaybank.co.uk, which Richard describes as "like a Napster for essays and course work". In foreign language classes, a student might go to one of the machine translation sites – "not freetranslation. com," says Richard, "no one uses it any more because it's no good". Most students are honest, he says. "I haven't seen vast majorities of students I know cheating. Usually, it's just if someone has forgotten to do the course work or has missed a deadline, then they'll download and hand it in."

Similar stories are told by Aled, 16, in Chiswick, and Rosie, also 16, in Richmond – where the schools top the league tables. Says Rosie, "The teachers say if we ever try to do it they would be able to tell, and they make a point of it at the beginning of every year when there's a new class. But my teacher told me stories of how at GCSE last year people handed in pieces of course work and the teacher has known that it isn't their own work and was completely copied off the internet, but can't prove it, so can't do anything about it."

As Angell says, checking up on students can take a lot of time, even when you use sites like the JISC-approved Turnitin.com, which claims to be able to detect material copied from the internet. It can – to a point. To find the limits of the site's capabilities, I submitted three chunks of my own text. The first was a portion of a chapter of one of my books that has been on the internet in full text for four years; the second, an article of mine that had been online for about two weeks; and the third, an unpublished piece. The site recognised the book chapter, but passed both the articles. However, Turnitin.com missed that the book chapter excerpt was a revised version of an earlier article that had been on the web for six years. Missing the two-week-old article is understandable – search engines can't keep up with the internet's rapid growth either. But it underlines how difficult the task of detecting plagiarism is.

There is also a generation gap between teachers and kids. The Napster culture of swapping freely and today's media/PR culture in which the same material may be reused countless times are relatively recent developments. For these kids, information really does want to be free. They also have their own explanation for the official line that internet copying is not a problem in the schools: league tables. "Head teachers don't want any bad news coming out of their school. They prefer to keep things quiet and try to deal with it themselves," says Richard, to general agreement from his peers.

What does differ among these kids is their attitudes towards cheating. "It would bother me very much if someone got good grades through cheating," says Rosie, "because you're taught to research and then come up with your own ideas, and that's hard work." Aled just shrugs: "It doesn't bother me at all, because they'll just fail later on. They won't be able to do a job, even if they get one because they have the results."

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