Online catand mouse

July 14, 2000

Student cheats are turning internet plagiarism into big business. Frank Furedi offers solutions.

Busy academics have one more problem to worry about: internet plagiarism.

For some time American academics have been concerned about the growing phenomenon of computer-aided cheating. Even prestigious universities are plagued by the problem. Boston University in Massachusetts was forced to go to court to stop internet sites selling essays online.

One such site, Cheathouse.com, which bills itself as "An Evil House of Cheating", boasts that it possesses the largest essay database on the net. The business of providing coursework material is clearly profitable. There are hundreds of sites marketing their services. Anxious students with a bit of spare cash can request customised essays and receive them via email within 24 hours.

Sadly, computer-aided cheating is not confined to the United States. Last July saw the first big case on internet cheating in the UK. The exam results of 90 computer science students at Edinburgh University were withheld pending an inquiry into allegations of plagiarism. A month later, students at Glasgow University were under scrutiny. A new software package was applied to their work. There is considerable anecdotal evidence that the experience of these two Scottish universities is not exceptional.

Last week, Fintan Cutwin of South Bank University said that universities were overwhelmed by plagiarism. He said that university authorities discourage staff from reporting plagiarism and pretend that computer-aided cheating is not taking place.

Dr Cutwin is right - high-tech cheating is widespread in UK universities. A friend told me last summer that she was actively discouraged from pursuing one incident in case it opened up a can of worms. It is not just bad publicity that inhibits university authorities from tackling this problem. Appeals and complaints procedures are messy and time-consuming, and there is always the possibility of litigation.

It is worth noting that one of the students involved in the Edinburgh case is suing the university for alleged defamation.

Yet the problem will not go away. The massive increase in student numbers makes it difficult for lecturers to familiarise themselves with every student's writing style. There is considerable temptation to give suspect work the benefit of the doubt. As universities continue to increase the weight allocated to coursework at the expense of written exams, the issue of plagiarism has important implications for the quality of degrees.

So, what is to be done? Dr Cutwin suggests that universities use an automatic detection system known as Moss - Measure of Software Similarity. Moss provides an internet service that compares letter frequency and length of sentences and also examines the structure of the text.

Other service providers such as Plagiarism.org offer similar help. In Britain, there is Copy-Catch, software that reads a number of related essays and can detect when a high number of words -over 70 per cent - is used in common. Having tested some of these services, I can confirm they work, but take up a lot of time.

Personally, I do not want to get involved in a technical game of cat and mouse.

I am not sure what the answer is, but I suggest the following approach: it is better to pre-empt than to react. Explain to students why plagiarism is not acceptable. Most students are not, by nature, cheats. Students need to be told to carefully cite their sources and to provide a bibliography with each essay. Teachers can use seminars to get students to discuss and evaluate the sources they have used.

Most important, ask specific essay questions and demand that students engage with the literature provided by the course convener. Let us find an intellectual rather than a technical solution to the problem.

Frank Furedi is reader in sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

* Is plagiarism overlooked in British universities? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk.

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