Electronic methods of detecting plagiarism are not a magic solution, a new report warns. A good-practice guide prepared for the Joint Information Systems Committee says that electronic communication has made plagiarism and collusion easier and that more must be done to combat it.
The report, compiled by Jude Carroll of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, and Jon Appleton, author of the Oxford Brookes University working party on plagiarism, argues that the most effective strategy is a "balanced approach, combining a rethink of course design and of how best to inform students about regulations and citation conventions".
The report says: "By reconsidering exactly what they are seeking to assess, institutions can make the tasks more relevant to future employment needs and reduce the opportunities they offer for plagiarism."
Another factor in tackling the problem is varying interpretations of plagiarism among academics, the report says. There must be a consensus over the definition of the term.
The authors also note that staff behaviour and attitudes can have a significant impact on the occurrence of plagiarism and related offences. For example, academics will not encourage students to follow the rules if they ignore obvious cases.
The report's list of recommendations includes giving responsibility for all cases of plagiarism to a small number of properly trained staff in each subject area, as well as establishing fast-track disciplinary procedures for minor transgressions.
While the report says that electronic aids can "only be an adjunct" to academic judgement, it says these innovations can provide evidence of plagiarism that lecturers might otherwise miss.
Programs such as CopyCatch can quickly match scripts, but they can be used only if work is submitted electronically, while detection tools that scour the worldwide web for text similar to that written by students can only access a small percentage of the internet that is indexed on search engines.
Mr Carroll and Mr Appleton also warn that these tools will overlook the older or more obscure print sources used by the "savvy, intentional plagiariser".
Plagiarism: A Good Practice Guide can be read at: www.jisc.ac.uk/mle/plagiarism/brookes.pdf