Beating plagiarism seen as 'a lot of extra hassle'

October 5, 2007

Universities prone to overlooking contribution of teaching practices to problem, conference told. Tariq Tahir reports

Academics are too quick to blame individual students for the rise in plagiarism and should examine other causes, in particular their own methods and practices, a lecturer has said.

Chris Proctor, a senior lecturer in business at Salford University, told a conference last month that there had been too much focus on the "crime" of plagiarism and not enough on the environment that could breed it.

The issue of why plagiarism occurred and the circumstances in which it was reported were not covered, he told The Times Higher after the conference, Education in a Changing Environment .

"What has been dealt with in universities is what software we should use to detect plagiarism, not what causes the problem," he said.

The level of supervision a student received could often determine if he or she would resort to plagiarism, Mr Proctor said.

"Academics and universities disagree on the level of supervision and its frequency. But if there is a weak student who is receiving very little individual attention and there is a deadline and the work is not completed then there is a big temptation to find something on the internet." He said that universities were tiptoeing around the causes of plagiarism and using strongly worded statements to give the impression that the matter was under control.

"No university is ever going to admit that it has a problem with plagiarism," he said. "When the matter is reported they say, 'We've got procedures to deal with this, and here are the guidelines', full stop."

It is not only institutions that can be lax about plagiarism, Mr Proctor added - many individuals do not tackle the matter robustly. He said academics often hold widely divergent views about about what constitutes an offence and are partial in their reporting of plagiarism.

Some are unwilling to report a problem because it is "a lot of extra hassle, with filling in forms and attending hearings and so on".

"I know that some academics never report it, while others are actively looking for plagiarism in whatever they are marking."

Mr Proctor made his comments ahead of a new study, published this week, that gave a ringing endorsement for the plagiarism detection software, Turnitin, which is now used by 90 per cent of UK universities.

The independent study by NCC Group, which compared different software packages, said that Turnitin had the largest database of material against which to check students' work and that it was more likely to detect essays purchased online.

Will Murray, service director of the Joint Information Systems Committee Internet Plagiarism Advisory Service, said the software had "matured into a highly effective solution for formative teaching and learning".

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