Leading Article: When imitation is unflattering

A survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) has revealed that more than half of the union's members believe that internet plagiarism is a serious problem among sixth-formers. A particular problem, it seems, is pupils using material cut-and-pasted from websites.

Plagiarism used to mean students copying out of encyclopaedias or textbooks in longhand. Now the hugely increased access to the web and the demand for work to be word-processed has made the process much easier. Some websites even offer custom-made answers to coursework questions. As a consequence, plagiarism is more common and can be harder for teachers to detect (although not always – one tutor responding to the survey recounted seeing one piece of work with web adverts still attached). The ATL's general-secretary, Dr Mary Bousted, claims the survey shows "the risks of putting so much emphasis on passing tests and getting high scores at any cost". This is dubious. It does not make sense to blame the Department of Education for plagiarism in schools. The Government can certainly help to combat the problem by cutting down the coursework element of public exams and making sure that more of what remains is completed in class. But this is essentially a fight for individual teachers and heads.

More than 55 per cent of teachers questioned by the ATL said students did not have sufficient understanding of what plagiarism was and what counted as legitimate research. A third said their school did not have a clear policy for dealing with plagiarism. This is the heart of the problem. Teachers and schools need to ensure students know exactly what is and what is not acceptable. Students also need to be made to understand they are merely cheating themselves in the long-term if they commit plagiarism. This may seem obvious, but spelling it out does work.

A number of teachers who have taken action on this noticed that, once students understood clearly what plagiarism was and how they had to reference works properly, it became less of a problem. As an added precaution, teachers should acquaint themselves with those websites offering "writing services".

Plagiarism is hardly a new offence. It may have taken on a different and more virulent form but the ways of dealing with it are still largely the same as they were in the past: vigilance and education.