Would you pass off a website essay as your own - and if you did, would your tutor notice? Maggie Greatorex reports
Zack Alexander is a 23-year-old engineering undergraduate who knew nothing about email or the web until he got to California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, in the United States.
Five years ago he was the norm. But now, he says, undergraduates are already switched on. His flatmate, Lang McHardy, who comes from Los Angeles, grew up computer literate because his father, a metallurgist, was interested.
"Within our age group, the people who knew a lot about computers in high school were the computer geeks, while in my brother's age group, a mere five years younger, many are quite proficient. The point, of course, being that computer literacy is rising quickly," says McHardy, who has just finished a semester in Munich.
There, and in London, he was astonished to find how little use students made of IT. "In Munich, almost none of the Germans were using laptops to take notes."
McHardy's personal IT use is heavy but selective. He uses free services but hates the adverts that finance them. He routinely uses email to chat.
However, he says, even in California, home of Silicon Valley, use of computers within university has oddities. He has to handwrite exams, which brings his marks down because his writing is slower than his thoughts. The examiners' argument, like that of British authorities, is that computer generated work can be copied.
The internet offers opportunities good and bad. Instead of cribbing from a friend, students have a choice of essay banks, which they can download from a selection of websites. "If used correctly," one promises, "you will be on the way to all the 'As' you have ever wanted or strived (sic) for."
Some sites will allow visitors to download free. Others charge a subscription fee or a fee for individual papers, often $50-plus.
Sites ostentatiously warn against claiming authorship but the tone of sites such as the US-based Evil House of Cheat suggests an awareness that students may not all be scrupulous.
In 1997, Boston University took eight website entrepreneurs to court but lost. Researchers who were concerned that the copying of essays would undermine the quality of the degrees they were teaching, attempted to operate a sting. They posed as students and bought essays, telling the site operators that they intended submitting them under their own names. The court, however, did not accept that site operators are liable for the use students make of the web-essays they buy.
In Britain, authorities and students are just testing the water. At York University the student union has just put online the paper essay bank it has had since 1976 (see right). The university is supportive, recognising that students learn by example and that its examiners will recognise the essays if they are submitted as course work.
Edinburgh University has had the most serious clash to date with IT cheats. Staff noticed similarities in computer sciences work last August. They used data detection software to establish copying: 117 students were implicated in groups of up to eight or nine.
The university said students had not used internet sources but had crossed the fine line between acceptable discussion among themselves and copying.
Principal Sir Stewart Sutherland says: "The university's examination procedures are academically rigorous. At the first indication of copying, detection software was used to uncover the extent of the problem."
Now the software detection companies are working as fast to prevent cheating as students are to find easy answers. Perhaps it is ironic that their employees are usually IT-literate young graduates.
DEGREES BY THE DOWNLOAD
Finchley Law Tutors is one of the British essay bank sites set up on the US model. It was created by Dorit Chomer after she graduated in law from Thames Valley University. She had initial doubts, but then decided that "everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn't I?" Running the website, which attracts 3,000 hits a week, is now a full-time job. "Students have accounts with me, degree-level, masters and PhD," she says.
Essays cost Pounds 30 each, with an additional "handling charge" of Pounds 1 per 1,000 words. Special commissions can be provided to order. She says that her writers are academics, "mainly Oxford and Cambridge".
Like US counterparts, the FLT site contains reminders that the essays are for reference only and must not be submitted as students' own work. Chomer is doubtful if all students are scrupulous. But she also claims that universities are among her best customers. "They buy essays to check against course work," she says.
Pete Campion-Smith, academic affairs officer at the York University student union, agrees. Students can find "model answers" useful, he says. "Often when they come from school to university it's a big change of style."
YUSU has provided essays for student use since 1976 and recently put its collection online. Campion-Smith denies that students pass material off as their own. "Students are aware of plagiarism." Academics are supportive, he says. "They look at the essays so they know what is available."
Additional reporting by Jonathan Mills