Plagiarism is just a mouseclick away

December 13, 2002

Students are using text messaging to cheat in exams and copying from the internet for coursework. Chris Bunting reports on how institutions are dealing with the issue.

A student in a final examination got up and began an ungainly progress to the toilet. An invigilator followed him. "He looked surprised that I might go in with him to the toilets," the invigilator says. "After a while, he pulled out a pile of notes from his trousers and handed them to me. He said: 'I suppose you better have these or I might rustle in the cubicle.'" At the end of the exam, the invigilator, a mathematics lecturer who wants to remain anonymous, warned another student to stop writing. "I went back to him a second time to tell him to stop. He wouldn't. I went back to him a third time... and I physically pushed him and told him he had to stop."

The invigilator reported the time cheat and the walking filing cabinet to the authorities. "I heard nothing more about the two cheating incidents. What I did hear about was the 'assault' I had committed against the student. That went to the highest level and I am not allowed to invigilate any more."

He believes it is now commonplace in some universities for students to cheat in the exam room and expect to get away with it. "The students talk during the exams. Not only that, but they will not stop if you ask them to. They can text each other during the exams. Many universities are sweeping these problems under the carpet. To identify cheats would mean to lose students and that means losing money. They want students to get higher grades than they would otherwise get because that means the institution is meeting its targets," he says.

His complaints add to a body of anecdotal reports that cheating in university examinations is widespread and increasing. But there is little hard evidence that cheating in Britain's exam rooms is on the rise. However, concern that some institutions are more focused on their output of 2:1s than on standards and that increasingly impersonal relationships between lecturers and expanding student bodies may be undermining academic honesty, could be responsible for building more of a perceived than a real problem.

Peter Ashworth, professor of educational research at Sheffield Hallam University, has conducted research with students on their attitudes to cheating. "One thing we found was that formal examinations was one area in which students... regarded cheating as a real misdemeanour," he says.

But students often had relaxed views towards cheating in examined coursework. "Some thought that if a course didn't really matter in the final marking, they would get through its coursework by hook or by crook. Others thought that if courses were disproportionately important to them, then they had to get through them by hook or by crook."

It is in assessed coursework that a combination of new technology and students' lax attitudes may be causing an increase in cheating. Jude Carroll, an expert in plagiarism at Oxford Brookes University, quotes a recent study in Australia. Out of 1,770 pieces of coursework analysed, it found that 8.8 per cent contained more than 20 per cent of text lifted from other sources without referencing. In 2000, a study of 2,200 students at 21 US universities found that one in ten admitted using unattributed material lifted from the internet.

"What is increasingly being talked about is 'mouseclick' plagiarism," Carroll says. Copying and pasting material is such an accepted part of the experience of the internet and word processing that inappropriate copying of material can be more carelessness than the determined effort of fraudsters.

Detection of problem coursework may be aided by a computer system set up at Northumbria University and available to all universities. The system allows academics to receive coursework from students through an electronic "gateway" that compares content with previously submitted work and material available on the internet.

But Ashworth and Caroll stress that such systems should not be used as the basis for a simplistic "catch and punish" approach. "While about 10 per cent of the work that students submit is not referenced, it is important to realise that probably only 1 per cent is fraud," Carroll says. "In our interviews we have discovered lack of understanding about... the difference between plagiarism and research. Some people just don't know how to write an essay and where and when to reference... This has got to be seen as much as a teaching as a disciplinary problem," Ashworth says.

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