Rarely does a week go by without the word plagiarism raising its ugly head in the university sector. Of course, the availability of papers and reviews on-line, internet essays and other web-based material puts temptation in the way of hard-pressed students and, in that context, it is not perhaps surprising that the number of reported incidences of plagiarism amongst undergraduate and postgraduate students has escalated rapidly.

Indeed, information divulged recently under the Freedom of Information Act revealed a frighteningly large number of cases in UK universities in 2003-04 (6,672 in total) with one university alone declaring over 700 cases of students found guilty of copying original work without declaring it. Rightly, the universities themselves are increasingly taking a robust stance in proven cases. As a result, about 100 students were permanently excluded from universities in the UK last year for cheating and others had their PhDs withdrawn.

Punishing the crime is one thing but stemming the tide is quite another. I have had the unpleasant experience of being either judge or jury in several plagiarism cases in the last few years and I have often been surprised by the students’ apparent lack of comprehension of the significance of their actions and their shock when told that plagiarism is a form of cheating. Many, it seems, are under a false impression that downloading information from the web for course work is an acceptable practice, and it has simply not crossed their minds that reproducing material verbatim without attribution is in any way dishonest. Ignorance is, of course, no defence in the eyes of the law but, nonetheless, we as teachers have a responsibility to ensure that we get the message across loud and clear and explain the consequences of any transgressions. That is easier said than done – there will probably always be some students who are oblivious to information provided in guidebooks or disseminated in lecture theatres and tutorials, no matter how often the message is reinforced. However, I am mindful of a recent case where a student who admitted to plagiarism threatened to sue his university for ‘lack of information and negligence’ and I can’t help feeling there may be more that we can do.

One thing that continues to worry me is our effectiveness in detecting plagiarism. While I have no desire to police the students’ every action, detection does seem to be rather hit or miss. An astute tutor may well recognise the signs and do an excellent piece of detection work but another may not and, as a result, something might slip through the net – if this something contributes to assessment then of course the system is unjust. Some would argue that this is reason enough for getting rid of course work and reverting to examination-based assessment only; they may have a case. A ‘Spycatcher’ approach may provide an alternative. Software systems are now available which will screen essays and other work electronically and highlight text plagiarised from an intranet source. In my (very limited) experience, they are not as effective or user-friendly as I had hoped; moreover, they have all the hallmarks of potential to increase the administrative/bureaucratic load exponentially without necessarily achieving the desired endpoint. However, the Big Brother approach is finding favour in some quarters, not least with the students themselves. And that brings me to an important point. Most students are scrupulously honest and share our very dim view of plagiarism – they work hard and deserve to be treated with respect, not as potential suspects. They also want to work with us to eliminate plagiarism and to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and equally. No doubt there will always be a few cheats in the system, but peer pressure from the students may be one of the most effective ways of addressing this growing problem.

Of course, cases of plagiarism and other forms of cheating are by no means confined to the student population as, no doubt, many of us have witnessed. My first experience came as a postgraduate student when my supervisor came into the lab one day brandishing a newly published article from a leading group in the field which showed more than a passing resemblance to something he had published earlier – I can still remember how shocked we all were. Some years later, I received a grant application to review which included large sections which appeared to be lifted directly from a proposal I had written the previous year (and which had not been funded). My reaction on that occasion was rage but I am pleased to say that the grant awarding body dealt with the issue rather more effectively. More recently, as the editor of a journal I have had to deal with a couple of minor cases of bad practice but, fortunately, there has been nothing more serious – at least, as far as I know... 

Julia Buckingham