The amount of serious plagiarism committed by UK students has declined by 60 per cent since 2005, according to detection service Turnitin.
Figures released by the firm reveal that 7.7 per cent of the essays assessed in 2005 in the UK using its software consisted of more than 75 per cent unoriginal - and therefore potentially plagiarised - content. By 2012, that figure had fallen to 3.1 per cent.
The proportion of work that was more than 50 per cent unoriginal fell from 10.5 per cent in 2005 to 6.6 per cent in 2012.
The firm attributes the reduction to a 2002 decision by universities’ IT body Jisc to establish a national plagiarism advisory service, now known as PlagiarismAdvice.org, which initially provided Turnitin software free to all UK higher education institutions. It is now used by 98 per cent of UK institutions, and the number of essays it screens has increased 50-fold since 2005, to more than 5 million in 2012.
Gill Rowell, academic adviser at Turnitin, told the Committee on Publication Ethics’ European Seminar 2013 in London on 22 March that the incidence of deliberate plagiarism was lower than the reported figures suggested because most of the detected matches stemmed from students’ misunderstanding of “academic conventions”.
She said the most important aspect of PlagiarismAdvice.org - which had been replicated around the world - had been to raise the profile of student plagiarism within institutions, such that most of them had now adopted policies on the issue.
Phil Newton, superintendent of assessment at Swansea University, said Turnitin was a “fundamentally important” tool for plagiarism detection. However, he cautioned that it did not pick up on all forms of plagiarism. For instance, it struggled to detect content hidden behind paywalls on essay mills’ websites and would not flag up bought essays that had been written to order.
“It is my personal experience that Turnitin misses a lot of matches and gives incomplete reports for a lot of others,” he said.
Dr Newton added that students were probably becoming more savvy about the sources it could and could not detect. “A quick Google search identifies ways of evading detection, although the success of these approaches is questionable,” he said.
But Will Murray, vice-president of Turnitin International, noted that as all submissions remained in Turnitin’s database, instances of plagiarism that were not initially flagged up could be discovered later as the software became more sophisticated.
“Essay sites, for example, reuse students’ work. Any student using a bespoke essay will get caught at some point,” he said.