Cyber-war is declared against student cheats

Cheating university students who buy essays through the internet face exposure from new software capable of detecting plagiarism.

British universities are so worried about the growth of cheating that they are to test, American software that checks students' work against essays in known essay banks. One service in north London offers off-the-peg and customised essays as well as PhD theses and takes up to 500 orders a week.

Recently, 117 students at the University of Edinburgh were accused of using e-mail to copy each other's coursework. The new software assigns a virtual fingerprint to each student which shows their style - how long their sentences and paragraphs are and whether they use adjectives and adverbs a lot.

By checking the pattern, it can detect instantantly whether a student is presenting his or her own material. The software can also detect when a student is lifting paragraphs from someone else's work without attribution and without paraphrasing. The Joint Information Systems Committee, which overseas university computer networks in Britain, is testing the software.

Malcolm Reed, its secretary, said: "Plagiarism is a growing problem. And common sense would tell us it's going to become more of a problem."

Professor Tim O'Shea, master of Birkbeck College, London, said: "It's very easy to check out someone's style. Given that we want to encourage people to do things like the e-university, we need to have an outward sign that the thing is robust."

The Student Essay Bank is run from a private home in Finchley, north London, by Dorit Chomer, a law graduate from Thames Valley University. Ms Chomer has an online catalogue with hundreds of essays in every subject area from topics such as Freud's theory of psychosexual development to the ideological origins of the American revolution.

The essays are of high quality, Ms Chomer said, and were written by students or hard-up lecturers from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Manchester. She charges £30 for an off-the-peg essay or £200 for a customised one. The most she has charged is £12,000 for a PhD thesis. If you want an essay of first-class standard, she can oblige. "We write to the standard ordered," she said.

Ms Chomer is not worried by the crackdown. "Universities have already stopped students accessing my website from their libraries," she said. "But the students just go to an internet café instead."

Her essay bank receives 5,000 to 7,000 hits a week, she says. Those inquiries normally yield 300 to 500 orders. Two of the most popular subjects in law are land and trust.

In the past two months, she has received 50 to 60 orders from Oxford students for an essay on: The Land Charges Act of 1925 was an imaginative attempt to deal with problems of equitable interests. However, it contained so many fundamental flaws unseen by the legislatures at the time that the whole scheme threatened to self-destruct. Discuss."

Ms Chomer has also had many requests for essays on the Cold War. "I have a lot of Russian students coming to me for help. They are really lazy."

Professors in the United States have already begun to use the new software which, they say, is as simple as a spellcheck program. One professor at the University of California at Berkeley put 300 student papers through it and found 45 contained text lifted from other sources. Berkeley is testing the service throughout the university this spring.

Professor Alan Lloyd, head of classics and ancient history at the University of Wales, Swansea, said British universities were optimistic such aids would be useful. "At present, when we suspect something is not the work of the student we can't spend the time chasing it up," he said. "Clearly, with the use of this software our hand will be much stronger. We will be able to say, 'This is what the computer says. Come clean or do it again'."