Student plagiarism: the unoriginal sin

As the academic pressure on young people increases, so does the temptat ion to cheat. Elaine Williams reports
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The Independent Online
Ever since Wolverhampton University printed 1,000 posters warning students against the sins of plagiarism last month, other universities have been ringing up asking for details of the campaign.

Plagiarism is not new: students have been cheating as long as there have been examinations to cheat in, but the nature of the present problem is creating ripples of anxiety among the academic community.

Wolverhampton says that small numbers of students have developed the habit ot copying out tracts of texts from books and passing them off as their own in essays. Most students will have been tempted to do this during their academic careers but some wouldargue that the pressures to lift from books, copy from other students, make up quotes, invent data are greater than ever.

Dr Vivien Wylie, Wolverhampton's pro vice-chancellor, points to mounting debts driving students into paid work, forcing them to take short-cuts in their studies; others believe students are merely grasping the increased opportunities for plagiarism presented by the switch from final examinations to continuous assessment in many modular degrees. Seminar and group presentations, dissertations, essays, short reports, all vulnerable to copying and collusion, can now contribute to the final mark.

The university has taken the line that students who fail to give references and supply full bibliographies need to realise the seriousness of their offence - hence the posters. Dr Wylie says: "Part of the academic process is to go away and read other people's work and come up with your own conclusions, but if you lift passages word for word then you have to say that and put them in quotation marks."

Professor Steven Newstead of Plymouth University's psychology department is investigating the prevalence of cheating among Britain's undergraduates. His research suggests that it is commonplace: in a sample of 2,000 students from across the sector, more than 40 per cent admitted to copying material from books without acknowledging sources, while 50 per cent admitted inventing data. Taking unauthorised material into examinations was only acknowledged by 8 per cent. Professor Newstead says: "Cheating in course work is much easier than in exams."

But he feels that universities need to define for students what constitutes cheating. "For many students, producing a piece of work in time for assessment is more important than how you do it, it is more important than the data collection side. Inventingdata is not seen, therefore, as serious wrongdoing. But any lecturer will tell you that the way you collect data is vital and inventing data is one of the cardinal sins," he says.

Lecturers, he believes, are nevertheless reluctant to make accusations unless they have watertight evidence that plagiarism or cheating has taken place, for fear of getting involved in appeals and litigation.

Leeds University students, taking part of their final exams last week, were in no doubt that the growth in student numbers and less personal contact with tutors increased the opportunities for cheating. Melanie Sachdeva, a second year economics and management student, said that some students made up quotes and attributed names to them that would be difficult and time-consuming for lecturers to track down.

Jennifer Kumah, a Spanish and management student, said that essays were taken and copied by other students. "I handed in a piece of work that contributed to my final degree, but I never got it back. My tutor said he left it in my pigeonhole but I am sureit was pinched and copied. Sometimes I feel tempted to do it myself," she said.

Ian Sharp, a computing student, said that students were increasingly reluctant to hand in work before deadlines, for fear that it would be taken. He also said he had known of students in computing put their own names at the top of other people's programsand resubmit them as their own: "One girl did it in my group and she was given a warning. I do think copying between students is a big issue."

Dr Andrew Brooks, senior assistant registrar at Leeds University, believes, however, that students are no more likely to plagiarise now than in the past and that a certain amount of collusion is acceptable. "People helping one another is as old as the hills. Every examiner who has been through the system knows that," he says. But he accepts that people are "more aware" of the problems of plagiarism because a greater proportion of assessment was coming from coursework: "That's why there will always be a place for the unseen, written exam."

Dr David Aldabass, principal lecturer in computing at Nottingham Trent University, believes plagiarism is a growing and serious problem. His department, taking its cue from Wolverhampton, is to embark on an educational campaign. He says that the growth in student numbers means few lecturers are familiar with the academic development of individual students.

"When you are marking 200-300 pieces of course work at a time, copying or collusion is not always easy to spot. I had two students submit identical work. Both were distressed that they should be accused of copying. In such a case, how can you tell who isthe perpetrator? It's very difficult. You have to talk to them individually and compare their performance over time."