How schools beat the net cheats

I think most of our students are honest,” Dr Ruth Bender tells me, as we sit in her office at Cranfield University’s School of Management.

Yet, even if the majority of her students are trustworthy, the temptation to cheat has never been greater. Resources such as so-called internet “essay mills”, Wikipedia and Google’s all-seeing eye have taken plagiarism to a new level.

Which is why we’re sitting here, waiting for my dusty undergraduate dissertation to filter through Turnitin, the industry standard in automated plagiarism-detection software, and academia’s best weapon in a technological arms race with the cheats.

A recent survey by Dr Andrew Kakabadse, a fellow professor at Cranfield, revealed nearly two-thirds of school-aged children were copying work from the internet “without having read it in whole or in part”. And the problem is going to get worse. A generation of students who have been taught to use the internet since primary school are about to reach university. “You have a generation that’s being trained to think differently,” said Dr Bender. “You need to explain to people why it’s wrong, and that’s difficult.”

In an effort to detect plagiarists, universities deploy software such as Turnitin, an internet service that compares the text of an essay with a database of previously submitted work. If the system finds text that closely matches essays already in the system, it’s flagged to the essay’s marker.

But just as the technology on one side has advanced, so has the technology at the disposal of the cheats. Which side will win the war on plagiarism?

The cheats’ tactics

Cheating has reached epidemic proportions in schools and universities. In 2008, The Association of Teachers and Lecturers surveyed 300 sixth-form teachers: 58% claimed plagiarism was a problem, and a third estimated that more than half of student essays contained someone else’s work.

The internet is a goldmine of research material, but academics are concerned. “It’s going to get worse,” said Dr Bender. She describes the problem of “generation Y” – the students about to reach university who have been taught from an early age to cut and paste from the internet, without learning key academic skills such as referencing.

Students about to reach university who have been taught from an early age to cut and paste from the internet

Her fears are backed up by Dr Kakabadse’s study, which found that almost a third of pupils thought that inserting material from the internet without changing it was acceptable behaviour.

Dr Thomas Lancaster is a lecturer specialising in plagiarism detection at Birmingham City University. He agrees that the next generation of Wikipedia-savvy students pose a threat to academic standards. “A lot of students who go to university are more technically experienced than the staff who are teaching them,” he said. “I think teachers at school have a duty to educate students that information on the internet isn’t free, and that they can’t just take words and phrases from the internet and hand them in.”

But if poor research skills are threatening academic standards, so too are so-called essay mills: companies that claim to write “model essays” to the exact specifications of a student. The mills claim to be doing nothing more than assisting students where their universities have failed them.

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