Student coursework will soon be subjected to routine electronic screening in an effort by universities to stamp out plagiarism.
Software from the United States, which claims to be able to detect work copied from the internet, is to be tested on British campuses next year under a project headed by the funding councils' Joint Information Systems Committee.
While stressing that there is no proof that plagiarism is on the increase, Jisc acknowledges that the internet "makes it easier to copy other people's work and, with little or no alteration, students can pass unoriginal work off as their own".
Jisc has invited bids from universities to examine software developed by iParadigms that is said to have been widely tested in the US. However, given the different educational and social structure of universities here, Jisc is keen to assess the impact of electronic scrutiny on both staff and students.
The testing will try to assess the effect on universities' current plagiarism procedures and their appeal strategies, as well as exploring potential cultural difficulties and students' rights issues.
Hazel Pepperill, a computing lecturer from Oxford Brookes University who has bid to take part in the trial, said plagiarism was a mounting problem that would ultimately affect the value of a degree.
"We owe it to those students who do not cheat to catch the ones who do," she said.
Oxford Brookes will test a number of different automatic detection systems, a fact that she hopes will deter potential plagiarists.
"The problem, which we all know exists, has got to be measured," she said. "The worry is that when we start looking for plagiarism we could find ourselves up to our necks in it, and what do we do then?" Part of the solution lay in educating students about the correct use of the internet and acknowledging sources, she said. In addition, more careful course design and assignment setting could reduce the potential for copying.
Among the systems being tried at Oxford Brookes is Copycatch, a British software tool designed to uncover collusion among students. Author David Woolls, who has already sold a number of his systems to universities, said he was very disappointed with the way Jisc was running its piloting project.
"It scarcely seems a fair contest to have one piece of software being tested with funds provided from Jisc. How can evaluations take place if all the software available is not tested in the same way?" he said.