Plagiarism can be hard to prove, so why waste time on punishment when better assessment methods can stop copycats in their tracks? Harriet Swain investigates
You have just marked a great essay - original, cogently argued and factually accurate. Can it really be the work of one of your students? Thanks particularly to the world wide web, your doubts may well be justified. How can you be sure? And how can you guard against the possibility of plagiarism in future?
Most experts agree that it is worth spending a lot more time tackling the last question than the first two.
Jude Carroll, senior lecturer in teaching and learning at Oxford Brookes University, says you would be far better off making a course less plagiarism-friendly or telling students how to avoid plagiarism than pursuing a case against a suspected guilty student.
Even the Plagiarism Advisory Service, run by the Joint Information Systems Committee, which provides an online detection service enabling comparison of students' work against electronic sources, states: "Electronic plagiarism detection cannot solve the problem of plagiarism. Detection should be used as part of a wider approach to prevention."
Gill Rowell, support officer for the PAS, says that the detection service itself can be a useful prevention tool since it does not distinguish between sources that have been used unacknowledged and those that have been properly cited. It can therefore help to show students how to use citations correctly.
Rowell says that many students don't plagiarise deliberately; they simply don't understand how not to.
Niall Hayes, lecturer in organisation, work and technology at Lancaster University Management School, and author of a study on cultural differences and plagiarism, agrees that while "the word plagiarism implies intentionality, that isn't necessarily the case". For example, students from some cultural backgrounds differ in their understanding of ownership of intellectual property.
Hayes says that one of the most important things for students to understand is how to paraphrase and how to reference that paraphrasing. "We say to them that if they have a paragraph without any references, they should look at it closely because it is unlikely that it's all their own ideas," he says. He also encourages students to use bibliographical software and to reference as they go. In addition, he recommends two read-throughs of the final work - one to check English and presentation, the other to check referencing.
Rowell says that most methods for helping students to avoid plagiarism are simply good teaching practice: don't recycle assignments; try to ask for an analytical and critical approach rather than information. She suggests being particularly careful with subjects, such as Shakespeare, on which numerous essays are available on the web. It may be useful to get students to relate the topic to their own experiences, or, if discussing a historical subject, to draw parallels with a modern-day figure.
While some of the more sophisticated websites offer essays to order, even they claim to have qualms about plagiarism. A spokesman for one of these, Degree Essays UK, says that it will not supply an essay that is blatantly going to be passed off as a client's own.
Another solution could be to change the format of an assignment, suggests Rowell, by asking students to develop a webpage, or assess an online discussion on the topic.
Her advice is to "ask students to compare, evaluate, take apart - at least then you've moved from wholesale download to cut and paste". She also suggests keeping assignments specific and topical. She warns that students plagiarise if they feel the question is too general or too tired - and the answer too readily available electronically.
A key tip is to value the process as much as the product. "If all the emphasis is on the end result, you don't know who got the result," Carroll says. It is therefore a good idea to ask for a first draft, weekly updates or a learning log before the final piece of work. Alternatively, you could demand that early drafts or copies of the most important research sources are submitted along with the finished assignment.
She adds that it is important to do something that authenticates the activity students are doing. This could mean in-class quizzes, watching students doing part of their coursework, or giving 10 per cent of students a viva.
In a paper on "The New Plagiarism", Jim Evans, of Warwick University's Centre for Academic Practice, suggests getting students to write a "metaessay" - an essay about their essay - immediately after handing in their major project. This essay would answer questions about what they had learnt from the assignment, what problems they faced and how they overcame them. Not only would this allow the tutor to compare writing styles, it would also make students think about the learning process.
Hayes says that some of the advice on plagiarism he passes on to students is just as useful for academics, particularly when it comes to new technology. One tip that he has adopted is not to have too many computer windows open at one time, or at least to colour each window differently so that it is clear which source is which if you are cutting and pasting information.
Carroll warns that student plagiarisers who become academics are likely to continue their bad practices. Prevent a plagiariser now and you may secure your future citations.
JISC Plagiarism Advisory Service: www.jiscpas.ac.uk Jude Carroll, A Handbook for Deterring Plagiarism in Higher Education , available from the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, Oxford Brookes University.
Jim Evans, "The New Plagiarism in Higher Education: From Selection to Reflection", Interactions, Vol 4, No 2, 2000 (available on Warwick University website)
Concentrate on prevention rather then detection
Explain to students what plagiarism is and how to avoid it
Change assignment questions and formats constantly
Test the learning process as well as the result
Be streetwise about what students are doing