Cyber sleuths hunt for a way to end plagiarism

August 8, 2003

The furore surrounding the apparent explosion of plagiarism has yet to produce a consensus on the best way to detect or prevent copying and collusion in higher education. A series of touring workshops is being launched this autumn in a bid to help academics understand where the boundaries lie.

The Netskills Plagiarism one-day workshop, run by Dave Hartland of Newcastle University, aims to assess the impact of the internet and to explore new ways to prevent incidences of plagiarism by sharing experiences.

"We could have filled the workshops many times over," Mr Hartland said.

Meanwhile, a team of cyber sleuths at Northumbria University is using the same technology that led to the growth of internet plagiarism to help stamp it out.

The National Plagiarism Advisory and Detection Service has been running for almost a year and thousands of student assignments have been analysed.

Manager Fiona Duggan was keen to stress that while electronic detection was crucial, other strategies were needed if universities were serious about containing the problem. "Our focus is much more on good practice rather than detection," she said. "Prevention has to be better than cure."

Institutional approaches to cheating vary enormously. While some universities adopt a lenient attitude, particularly towards first-year undergraduates, others treat even the first-time offender seriously. Some academic departments deal with suspected cases of plagiarism in-house, others have formed independent panels to allow tutors to remain distant from any judgement that could have legal consequences.

The first step in the drive to prevent plagiarism is a consideration of teaching practice. At her seminars and training workshops, Ms Duggan singles out assignment-setting for particular attention.

Academic plagiarism is a broad problem covering the theft of ideas that can take many forms. These range from straightforward copying from books to the sale of tailor-made essays and downloaded text from electronic "cheat sites".

"While you can never stop a really determined student from cheating, you can make it much more difficult for them simply by steering clear of general essay questions," Ms Duggan said. "It is important to personalise assignments so they can't readily be downloaded from an essay bank or copied from a friend."

The other vital component was reinforcing students' referencing and citation skills, Ms Duggan said. She said much of the problem stemmed from ignorance rather than deliberate theft of words and ideas.

But how can you be sure the student has not lifted chunks of text from any of thousands of websites, many of which are bona fide sources? To allow lecturers to be sure work is original, a free electronic detection service is on offer to UK universities, funded by the Joint Information Services Committee.

Staff at the detection service would not confirm how many institutions have registered with the service, although they said that legal and administrative complications stemming from data protection rules had hindered the operation to some extent.

"We expect that, given time, the submission of student assignments to this service will become purely routine," said detection support officer Gill Rowell.

Assignments submitted by students or tutors are compared with some 800 million websites. The system also checks work against essays from cheat sites and against previously submitted essays held in a database - hence the data protection issue.

The software, based on a US product called turnitin.com, identifies where matches have been found and produces a colour-coded originality report. The report takes four hours to appear but the timing is expected to be reduced to a few seconds by the end of the month.

It is up to the academic to decide how best to use the report, but Ms Duggan recommended that it should be starting point for discussion. She said: "The originality report can be used to open a dialogue between the student and academic about issues such as academic integrity and the importance of acknowledging original sources, which will stand the student in good stead for the rest of their academic career.

"The software itself cannot identify plagiarism. The report highlights text within the assignment that has been found at another source and provides links to them. It does not make decisions about a piece of work or its author. Rather it is just providing information on which a tutor can make a judgement about whether plagiarism has taken place."

The US detection system is not the only choice available to universities.

UK-based CFL Software Development has offered institutions a free version of its CopyCatch Gold software.

Paul Gent, a tutor at the University of Leeds who has used CopyCatch Gold, said: "Whereas almost anything detects cut and paste, CopyCatch detects much more subtle paraphrasing. This means we can start talking about stealing ideas, not just words, and the whole thing becomes educational not adversarial."

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