Leader: A web of confusion

June 23, 2006

Plenty of horror stories emerged from this week's international plagiarism conference but the greatest cause for concern was over the confusion that still surrounds this most basic of academic debates.

Students do not know what constitutes plagiarism, staff do not know how to deal with it and universities do not know how to punish the perpetrators.

Baroness Deech rightly took the academic world to task for failing to deliver a consistent message to students, who face anything from a mild rebuke to expulsion - assuming the marker has not simply turned a blind eye.

In the internet age, plagiarism is far from straightforward, which is of course why confusion still reigns. But unless concerted action is taken it threatens to reach epidemic proportions. Tough penalties for deliberate cheating, such as the purchase of online essays, would be a good place to start. Most cases are more marginal, however, and suggest that universities' efforts to educate their students on referencing and academic rules on attribution are still not clear enough. Treated correctly, the web is a magical and legitimate resource for study, but it is taking too long to establish the ground rules.

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