Student cheat figures shock

June 25, 2004

As many as a third of all undergraduates could be plagiarising from the internet, a new study suggests.

In a paper for next week's inaugural Plagiarism Advisory Service (Pas) conference, Fintan Culwin will reveal that a secret plagiarism detection exercise with his first-year computing students found that around 30 per cent of them handed in an essay with at least 25 per cent "non-original" material.

Two-thirds of students submitted essays with at least 10 per cent of material copied from the internet.

Dr Culwin, a reader in software engineering at London South Bank University, said it was impossible to tell the true level of academic misconduct from his work because the detection software he uses reveals only the volume of copied material, including legitimately cited and properly attributed passages.

But he said that 25 per cent or more "non-original" material in an essay was considered "extreme" in his field of computer science.

"I've shown my graphs at a couple of conferences and some people say the results are incredible, and ask how I can cope. Others say its less than they thought," he said.

Dr Culwin is due to present his findings to the plagiarism conference hosted by the PAS, a body run by the Joint Information Systems Committee in Newcastle on Monday.

As part of an introductory course in professional skills, run by Dr Culwin at London South Bank, all first-years are assigned a 1,000- word essay on the history of computing.

The students are encouraged to use the internet for research. But the instructions make clear that the essay must be entirely in the their own words.

During a follow-up lecture, students are told that their essays have been electronically checked and their tutors would be giving them the results.

"When we tell them what we've done they do start to look very worried," said Dr Culwin. "But this is entirely educative and non-punitive. Their embarrassment is part of the entertainment, but it certainly gets the message across."

Meanwhile, a survey from research and recruitment firm Freshminds has found that 11 per cent of all undergraduates admitted to "inserting sections of text from an outside source" into their work without attribution. This equates to about 90,000 plagiarists based on the national undergraduate population.

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