Australian university students have turned to the worldwide web to plagiarise material for assignments, and as many as 500,000 essays a year may contain material copied from the internet.
A study of essays written by students at six universities in Victoria during the first semester of this year shows that more than one in 12 included a significant proportion of material taken from the internet without attribution.
In what they believe to be the first investigation of its kind, researchers assessed 1,751 essays from 17 subjects ranging from business, computing and education to engineering, health and social sciences. The essays were written by undergraduates and postgraduates.
Using web crawlers developed by Turnitin.com, the essays were assessed for similarity to material available on the internet and in essays by other students in the class.
In the Victoria study, essays with 25 per cent or more of the text deemed to be similar were checked by the researchers to see if the students had made the appropriate attributions.
One assignment was found to consist of nine different sources of text with linking words added by the student. Another essay was largely comprised of a lecturer's notes.
Research leader Steve O'Connor said the results suggested that universities should introduce random testing.
Mr O'Connor heads Caval Collaborative Solutions, a consortium of university libraries in the state, which undertook the pilot project on behalf of the six Victoria universities.
Mr O'Connor said that the number of students detected as having plagiarised 25 per cent or more of the text in their essays was probably "only the tip of the iceberg".
"Everybody involved in the project believes the number we detected is a conservative figure. If we're right, we calculate that 500,000 student essays a year in Australia would contain some plagiarism," he said Mr O'Connor said students had borrowed material from more than 400 web sources, including at least five recognisable cheat sites. The internet was being used extensively, he said.
"We also found that students had used articles by Australian academics published on sites from Romania to Scotland. When you look at the sources students have accessed, they're right across the globe," he said He said his group had methodology that could be used by other universities.
Student plagiarism is on the agenda of the next meeting of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee.
AVCC executive director John Mullarvey said vice-chancellors supported any measures that would maintain the integrity of students' work. He added that some students might be uncertain how to apply ethics to material they found on the internet.
British universities have contracted Turnitin.com to provide a similar service through the Joint Information Systems Committee.