Encountering and countering the counterfeiters

April 8, 2005

Prevention is the key to nipping plagiarism in the bud, as Michael North finds out

Student cheats are often easy to spot, says Diane Seymour, a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University's Business School. "For instance, a student may say they have done a questionnaire of 200 people in China and you know they don't speak Chinese." Seymour is one of a pioneering team of 14 academic conduct officers at Oxford Brookes charged with preventing and detecting plagiarism.

Jude Carroll, a leading member of the team, says that in the past five years the university's focus on plagiarism detection has been vital for establishing strategies and giving the university a bank of case studies on which to draw. She believes the key elements of an effective system are having regular meetings of conduct officers to compare notes and feed their knowledge back into learning and teaching; monitoring cases to identify "hot spots" and trends; and ensuring the sensitive induction of new officers.

Despite the system, the number of cases detected rose by 100 per cent in 2003-04, due partly to the greater availability of sources and "cheat" websites.

Seymour oversees the biggest school in the university, which has some 750 students, 25 per cent of whom are from overseas. She spends a fifth of her time dealing with plagiarism cases referred by tutors: there have been 80 since September. Punishment ranges from a formal warning, which goes on a student's record, to being given zero marks for a module. Seymour can also make the student rewrite an essay, but is reluctant to do so as this also penalises the tutor who has to remark it. The most serious cases go to a central committee that can expel students.

Seymour says the usual means of detection are fairly low-tech - spotting changes in writing style or doing a search of a suspect sentence on Google. "Ninety per cent of students just download stuff," she says.

She can also use the electronic detection system Turnitin, provided free to universities by the Joint Information Systems Committee. This compares electronically submitted essays with a database of some 5 billion webpages, including subscription-only journals that Google cannot access. But Seymour says Turnitin is not yet widely used. "A lot of academics are dinosaurs as far as new technology is concerned," she says.

She stresses that her role is more about prevention than detection and punishment; it is about ensuring, with her fellow tutors, that students know what is expected of them. "I'm not a policeman," she says. "I see my role as trying to build a culture of integrity in which students don't want to cheat."

Her encounters with the students referred to her are more like tutorials, she says. She guides them in how to "manipulate" ideas and data and "make them their own" instead of copying them.

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