Many teenagers today routinely use technologies in their school and social lives that were only dreamt of by their parents and teachers. Access to world-famous gallery collections, libraries and up-to-date business information is no longer restricted by physical or geographical boundaries. Pupils researching topics for their coursework assignments can identify thousands of potentially relevant websites at the click of a mouse.

However, this wealth of information can be both a blessing and a curse. Distinguishing the relevant from the irrelevant or downright worthless can be a difficult and time-consuming task. When a search for a popular topic can yield in excess of 100,000 potentially relevant websites, it is easy to see why many pupils fail to search beyond the first page of results retrieved. In addition, the proliferation of websites offering what, on the face of it, appears to be a "quick-fix" solution in the form of pre-written or customised assignments can seem tempting to novice searchers overwhelmed by the nature of the topic and the scale of the available resources.

Plagiarism - the presentation of someone else's work as though it were your own - is a serious matter in academic circles. However, students can wrongly suppose that the avoidance of plagiarism places a requirement upon them to produce entirely original work that does not refer to any other work on a topic. In fact, many lecturers scan the bibliography of an essay to give themselves an idea of the coverage of the topic and the student's approach before reading the full paper. Knowing whether a student has consulted one or two books from the prescribed reading list or consulted websites will give an early indication of the scope of the submitted work.

Many parents and their teenage children will be aware that schools, colleges and universities take strict measures to ensure that all work submitted by students for assessment is the student's own. These measures include use of software programmes that highlight where wording in the submitted work matches text on web pages, or, indeed, in work submitted by other students. The object of these programmes is not to deter students from using the wealth of information now available at their fingertips, but instead to help them use these sources in a responsible manner.

The software in itself will not make a judgement as to whether an individual has plagiarised, as that judgement can only be made by a lecturer viewing the report produced. The software can, however, help identify students who are struggling with the writing requirements of their courses and thereby provide an early indication of when extra support may be needed. Students who are thus identified should ensure that they take advantage of any additional support available, as a failure to do so may lead to even greater problems at a later date.

Using internet resources responsibly can be confusing for new students. There are, however, a number of steps they can take to ensure they do not inadvertently plagiarise. When preparing their first assignment they should:

* Familiarise themselves with the rules and regulations relating to plagiarism and academic misconduct in their department.

* Find out what guidance is available in student handbooks, on the institution's website or from the learning resources department.

* Set up a system for note-taking that makes clear the distinctions between quotations taken from their reading and their own thoughts on a topic.

* Ensure that they are familiar with the citation system used in their subject and that they record all of the elements of a citation when taking notes.

* Think of referencing as a way of showing how extensively they have read about the topic.

* Ask for help if they need it before the work is handed in!

Dr Fiona Duggan is the head of advice and guidance at the Joint Information Systems Committee, a plagiarism advisory service. For more information visit www.jiscpas.ac.uk

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