New breed of detectives fights a rise in copycats

May 28, 2004

An upsurge in plagiarism is placing unprecedented pressure on hard-pressed academics to spot the copycats, according to experts.

A range of factors, from easy internet access to greater term-time working by students, is driving a growth in the deliberate lifting of others' work and in the sometimes unintentional overuse or failure to credit such work due to ignorance.

Chris Willmott, a biochemist at Leicester University, has developed procedures for detecting copied work and, more importantly, preventing it in the first place.

He said: "Plagiarism is an incredibly complex area. And the fact that information is more freely available than it used to be makes it far harder for academics to detect it."

While Dr Willmott's primary focus is on prevention, it is his plagiarism detection work that is attracting academic interest from around the world.

Plagiarism clues can range from the obvious, such as American spellings, to more subtle indicators, such as changes in narrative tone.

Once Dr Willmott suspects plagiarism, he uses internet search engines to track down the original source.

Electronic detection has been used for some time to catch culprits, but it is only of use if lecturers suspect plagiarism in the first place.

To show just how tricky it can be to spot plagiarism, The Times Higher has teamed up with Dr Willmott to set a "spot the plagiarism" test. There are eight clues in the fake essay below that give the game away.

The Joint Information Systems Committee runs an electronic plagiarism detection service as part of its plagiarism advisory service based at Northumbria University. There is a growing demand for the service.

Gill Rowell, support officer for the detection service, said: "It's down to things like the internet and the very different make-up of the student population that is under more pressure to perform well."

Jisc will hold its inaugural international plagiarism conference, "Plagiarism, Prevention, Practice and Policy", at St James' Park, Newcastle from June 28 to 30.

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