Students asked for cheat alert

September 3, 1999

Glasgow University's antiplagiarism software, used to uncover cheating in a first-year class, was developed in response to pleas from aggrieved students.

Malcolm Atkinson of Glasgow's computing science department said students had complained in staff-student liaison meetings that some of their classmates were cheating.

"They would never name names, but you can understand it would upset a good student when other people were getting marks by unfair means," he said.

The software, which uses techniques similar to those for comparing gene sequences, revealed arrogance as well as plagiarism among the students, who knew they were being monitored. Last year, 230 students taking a module in computer programming were told about the software and signed an undertaking to submit only their own work. A subsequent examination of their answers to three exercises led to the work of 59 students being investigated further, with action being taken against 52.

Professor Atkinson said: "They did not believe we could do it. Then we ran the program, caught a bundle of them and made it obvious it was unpleasant to get caught."

Some students have had written warnings, others have had their marks reduced and some still face disciplinary procedures.

Rob Irving, who developed the plagiarism detection program, said: "The software was only used to flag instances that needed to be looked at. After that, each case was examined independently by two members of staff and each student called in for discussions. There was no blanket judgement as a result of the scrutiny."

The university is extolling the "deterrent effect" of the software, which Professor Atkinson said would be an invaluable tool for higher education worldwide.

Dr Irving said that once the class was made aware of the copying detected, examination of a further exercise revealed no suspicious cases.

Other universities that have taken similar action include Aberdeen, which disciplined six accountancy students for electronic plagiarism, and Edinburgh, which took action against 117 computer science students.

Strathclyde University is considering proposals to beef up its guidelines and regulations to combat "academic dishonesty". Academic registrar Sue Mellows said there was no evidence that this was a serious problem at Strathclyde but students who were referred to the discipline committee often did not seem to be aware of what constituted dishonesty.

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