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Spotting Student Plagiarism

By: Thomas Muller - Updated: 3 Jun 2018 | comments*Discuss
 
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Thanks to the internet the problem of student plagiarism has become a complex one, but web innovation is also helping keep the cheats in check.

Growing Problem

Student plagiarism is hardly a new problem - it’s been going on as long there has been something to gain from writing essays, coursework and exam papers - but recent years have seen the threat grow.

Mounting pressure to succeed, greater reliance on coursework, and the immense information and answer source that is the internet have each played a role in increasing the opportunity and motivation for students to cheat.

The Internet Threat

Before the web came along student copy sources were limited to a manageable local sphere – reading list texts, university archives, class mates, for instance - but the internet has effectively blown this open by making a vast globe of information available through our computer screens.

Faced with researching an essay question, a student doesn’t need to rely on source texts their teacher knows inside out, now they can use the internet to glean from fresh and unfamiliar sources – thereby increasing the potential for plagiarism. It is even common for students to even buy essays and coursework over the web.

A recent survey carried out by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) found that the 58% of teachers that identified the internet as a problem believed 25% of work submitted by their students included material copied from internet sites.

Increased Opportunity

The internet is not the only factor encouraging students to cheat. The shift from exam assessment towards predominantly coursework-based assessment means there is increased opportunity. Cheating in course work is after all much easier than in exams.

The growth in student numbers and corresponding slackening of the teacher-pupil relationship also means that tutors are not able to keep as close an eye on their charges and are consequently less responsive when anomalies creep into submitted coursework.

Increased Motivations

But why cheat at all? Some argue that many of those that cheat do so, not because of a lack of morals, but because of the pressures now placed on them in higher education. The burden of debt, for instance, is forcing students into part-time paid work leaving them with less study time and greater temptation to take ‘short-cuts’.

Some are motivated by intense pressures to succeed, conscious that a bad mark could jeopardise their career hopes. Others resort to cheating because they are just disorganised or lazy.

Telltale Signs

Whatever the motivation or potential for getting away with it, there is still always a risk of being caught. Teachers are experienced at spotting telltale signs of plagiarism, however unknown the source.

Style inconsistencies are a common giveaway, especially when the teacher or lecturer is familiar with the work of their students. Alarm bells may ring, for example, if a submitted essay exhibits a level of ability unknown to their student, or when the writing style is uncharacteristic.

Even when the evaluator is not familiar with the student’s abilities and style there are still obvious giveaways, such as when a poorly written piece of text suddenly shifts into beautifully literate prose, or when a conspicuous error is duplicated - if more than one student makes the same strange spelling mistake then the smell of plagiarism is hard to dispel.

If a student has bought an essay over the internet and attempted to pass it off as their own then they might be caught out by regional spelling differences, such as between British and American English.

Difficulties of Detection

In practice, however, comprehensive detection by an individual is impossible. Teachers are faced with limited time, heavy workloads, high student numbers, and a threat that is growing evermore complex and sophisticated due to the internet. If a student decides to concoct a quote of some data out of thin air then how can a harried tutor be expected to both identify the spurious information and substantiate their allegation?

Fortunately, just as the internet has made life easier for dishonest students it has also made it easier for teachers to weed out the cheats, with the aid of sophisticated computer software.

Plagiarism Identification Aids

Plagiarism programmes don’t necessarily replace human detection only help to confirm suspicions and identify the original source of the work. Whether something has been plagiarised or not still remains an academic judgement.

Software known as Turnitin has proven to be a popular tool for detecting plagiarism for UK awarding bodies. This web-based package compares a document with its massive database and then generates an ‘originality’ report.

Understanding Plagiarism

A less severe way of tackling plagiarism is to try to help students better understand what it is in the first place. Many teachers believe students engage in plagiarism more out of ignorance that dishonesty, and they should be encouraged to learn how to use information properly and be clear about their sources

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