A high-tech "Big Brother" could soon be monitoring students' every computer keystroke and mouse-click as universities step up moves to halt the alarming rise of internet plagiarism, writes Phil Baty.
A new software package from the US, to be launched in Britain at a major plagiarism conference later this month, has already been dubbed the way forward in the fight against growing plagiarism by UK students.
The package, known as PowerResearcher, would force students to carry out their written assignments under a powerful and constant electronic gaze.
It monitors the entire research process from the initial project assignment to the final submission, automatically using correct citation and referencing procedures. It logs every web page visited, every word quoted and every sentence written or rewritten.
The beauty of this is that a sloppy or inadvertent plagiarist will be compelled by the system to do the right thing," said Stephan Botes, chief executive of Uniting Networks Incorporated, Atlanta, the company that makes the product.
He added: "The deliberate plagiarist would have to spend much more time to beat the system than it would take to simply do the assignment properly in the first place."
A paper on the software is to be delivered on June 30 at the inaugural conference of the Joint Information Systems Committee Plagiarism Advisory Service (Jiscpas) in Newcastle.
The paper, to be delivered by James Douglas Beasley, vice-president of Uniting Networks, will warn of the dramatic rise of internet plagiarism in the US.
A 2003 Rutgers University study of 18,000 students on 23 campuses found that 38 per cent of undergraduate students indicated that they had cut and pasted material from the internet to plagiarise in the past year. This was up from 10 per cent of respondents to a similar study two years earlier.
The problem, according to Mr Douglas Beasley, is that current software packages, such as that operated by Jisc, have limitations. They fail to check material against the "deep web" of internet pages hidden behind subscriber-only walls, or fail to check new or out-of-date web pages, he said.
"The student researcher is less likely to make a reference mistake due to automatic logging and tracking of sources and formatting of citations," the paper will say.
"The ability of lecturers to review time-based logs of research and writing activity lets them gain insights into students' research and writing activities, work habits, and time expended to verify that the students' output matches the recorded effort."
It will conclude: "No single process or technology can address the numerous varieties of plagiarism and the corresponding motivations for committing the offence. It is our belief the research process automation and research development environment software can prevent or reduce plagiarism or fill gaps in existing approaches by providing just-in-time guidance, research project management, increased productivity and information tracking features."
Fiona Duggan, head of Jisc's plagiarism advisory service, said such products were "very new" but were "certainly the way forward" in plagiarism prevention.
"But software alone doesn't educate students about the acceptable and correct use of other people's work to help students form their ideas, or teach them why plagiarism is wrong," she said.
Jude Caroll, author of A Handbook for Deterring Plagiarism and a postgraduate teacher at Oxford Brookes University, said: "For a long time people have talked about using a virtual-learning environment, and there are some systems around, but this one seems much more all-encompassing, so it it clearly a very interesting development."
"Plagiarism: Prevention, Practice and Policies 2004" conference, JISC Plagiarism Advisory Service, June 28-30, St James Park, Newcastle upon Tyne.