Conference reveals full extent of plagiarism and how the UK system is partly to blame. Phil Baty reports
A quarter of students admit to plagiarising - and almost all of them are getting away with it, a survey has shown.
The report, presented at this week's inaugural conference of the universities' Plagiarism Advisory Service, found that 15 per cent of students and recent graduates admitted to passing off other people's work as their own on more than one occasion during their degree course. A further 9 per cent confessed to having plagiarised only once during their university studies.
The survey also revealed that only 3 per cent of students who admitted to cheating said they had been caught.
"Plagiarism is not new and is probably as old as literature itself. But with the rise of the internet, it has become so easy to copy other people's work, students do not think twice about doing it," said Nik Pollinger, the coordinator of the survey for FreshMinds, a research consultancy that carried out the work in consultation with the Plagiarism Advisory Service.
The survey - of 600 members of FreshMinds' database of recent graduates from a range of institutions, and 1,000 officers of the National Union of Students - received 363 responses. It asked students if they had ever "inserted sections of text from any outside source into your own work, whether they are left whole or amended to conceal their origins".
FreshMinds claims the study is one of the most comprehensive ever undertaken in the UK. Its findings mirror those of similar exercises in the US and Canada.
The survey found that students were aware that their activity constituted cheating. Some 77 per cent of students classified plagiarism as "moderate to severe cheating", with only 3 per cent indicating that they believed it was an acceptable practice.
Lucy Bosworth, who graduates from Manchester University with a first-class honours in biomedical materials next week, said cheating at her institution was common and was often carried out openly. "You would often see people in the common room or in the pub quite openly copying other people's answers," she said.
It was seldom detected and punished, she said. "One person got caught and lost their degree. But the university could certainly have done more."
A spokesperson for Manchester said: "Plagiarism is contrary to the ethics of scholarship, and the university takes it very seriously. In recent years, we have taken further steps to prevent plagiarism, including developing our methods of assessment. We were one of the pilot institutions to sign up to the Joint Information Systems Committee plagiarism detection service. We have strict policies and procedures in place to deal with plagiarism, which all students are made aware of."
Mr Pollinger said that the low detection rate reported raised questions about institutions' procedures. The survey found that 22 per cent of students said that they were not informed about the plagiarism policies on their campus.
A similar proportion of students said plagiarism policies were not strictly enforced, and per cent said they did not believe the policies were very effective in deterring the practice.
Fiona Duggan, director of the Plagiarism Advisory Service, part of the publicly funded Joint Information Systems Committee for higher and further education, said the survey confirmed the perception on campus that plagiarism was a growing problem.
She said fee-paying students faced increased pressure to perform well while facing greater pressures on time. Students from a wider range of backgrounds needed more instruction in what constituted acceptable practice.
A quarter of students in the survey said pressure on their time caused them to cheat, but some 15 per cent simply said cheating was easier than not cheating.
Dr Duggan said pressure on staff exacerbated the problem. "Staff are facing bigger classes, less contact time with students, time pressures, and pressures to do their own research."
The survey appeared to dispel the myth that students are swarming to internet "essay mills" that sell pre-written essays that can be passed off as original work. Just 1 per cent said they had obtained essays from an online mill.