Students at the most academically selective universities are most likely to admit to cheating, a Times Higher poll on plagiarism has revealed.
Opinionpanel Research asked 1,022 students from 119 universities and colleges whether, how and why they had cheated in their coursework.
About 7 per cent of students at Russell Group universities admit to plagiarising work. At other old research universities and at new universities 4 per cent say they cheat. Some 43 per cent of Russell Group students confess to knowing at least one cheat at university, while at other pre-92 institutions the figure is 40 per cent and at post-92 universities 42 per cent.
Asked how many of their fellow students had plagiarised work, some 9 per cent of students at Russell Group universities answered "most people". The figure is 6 per cent at pre-92 universities and 5 per cent at other post-92 institutions.
The results are all the more surprising because with smaller class sizes, in particular at Oxford and Cambridge, there is arguably a higher risk of being caught out than at other universities. Russell Group members enrol the majority of students with high A-level grades for their degree courses.
Jean Underwood, a plagiarism expert at Nottingham Trent University, questioned whether the poll shows that Russell Group students cheat more or whether they are they just more likely to admit to doing so.
Her research has found the students most likely to plagiarise are those struggling in a high-pressure academic environment.
She said: "It could be that Russell Group students are more confident about admitting to plagiarising."
Jude Carroll, a plagiarism researcher at Oxford Brookes University, said:
"This is an interesting finding because the majority of students we discipline for plagiarism are bad writers, stupid or international students. This poll shows we may not be detecting a large tranche of the culprits."
George Macdonald Ross, a senior philosophy lecturer and an adviser on combating plagiarism, argued that students in some subjects - such as business studies, law, computing and psychology - were more likely to plagiarise.
"Students are least likely to plagiarise in disciplines where the stress is on independent thinking and argumentation," he added.
More than a third of respondents in the poll admit to copying ideas from books, journals or the web. But opinion is divided on whether this is classified as plagiarism or legitimate research.
Professor Underwood said: "Plagiarism is not simply about quoting verbatim, it is about not acknowledging where an idea came from. However, the line between plagiarism and research can be very blurry."
Julian Nicholds of the National Union of Students said: "A lot of students don't realise they are plagiarising. We urge institutions to give clearer information about what is and is not acceptable."
Philip Pothen, from the Joint Information Systems Committee, which funds the UK's plagiarism advisory service, remains optimistic that the problem can be addressed. He said: "One of the most encouraging signs has been that the schools sector is beginning to take this challenge seriously. In time, students coming into further and higher education will be more aware of how to use information sources legitimately."
* A masters student who copied from the web has been expelled from Leeds University. The student, who has not been named, was expelled with immediate effect.