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Essaybanks and Internet plagiarism: threat or opportunity?

Presentation on Internet plagiarism by Fiona Duggan (JISC Plagiarism Advisory Service) at the UKCLE seminar on plagiarism and legal education held on 22 September 2004.

Although plagiarism by students is not a new issue in higher education, the rise of Internet usage and associated technologies has led to concerns that the incidence of such activity has increased dramatically over recent years. Stories of students routinely submitting plagiarised work throughout their course without detection are becoming the higher education equivalent of urban myths.

The existence of a burgeoning industry providing complete essays on a wide variety of topics for sometimes modest sums to time impoverished students does, however, suggest that there is some substance to the stories. Rather than viewing these developments as a threat to academic integrity, the purpose of this paper is to highlight that they can instead be treated as an opportunity to engage students in discussion about the nature of academic endeavour, and their role in that process.

Students entering higher education in the last few years are accustomed to the widespread availability of electronic resources, and are probably more comfortable with these materials as reference sources than they are with more traditional printed publications. In addition, they come from a culture where downloading information from the Internet and sharing this information with others is increasingly viewed as an acceptable form of activity. In addition, an increasingly ‘consumerist’ attitude to higher education, both by education providers and the students themselves, can encourage a strategic approach to study, whereby minimal effort may be expended on assessments that do not contribute to final degree classifications. It is, perhaps, not surprising that with this background students often struggle to comprehend the seriousness with which plagiarism is viewed in academic circles. International students, particularly, often need time to adjust to the new academic environment in which they find themselves.

In a longtitudinal study undertaken by the Center for Academic Integrity in the US the number of students admitting to cut and paste plagiarism rose substantially over time. In addition to the underlying reasons for this trend outlined above, there is, undoubtedly, some confusion amongst students as to the mechanics of accurate citation in relation to electronic resources. The lack of consistency in citation practice across disciplines is yet another source of confusion for many students.

One of the more alarming developments in recent years has been the growing proliferation of websites providing downloadable student essays. These ‘essaybanks’ promote themselves as student aids, and harness real student concerns about heavy workloads and time management to promote their services. The range and nature of the subjects covered by the sites is wide, although some subjects, such as law, are more heavily represented than others. A simple Google search for ‘free law essays’, for example, will retrieve many thousands of matches in a matter of seconds. The quality of the material available from these sites is extremely variable, and often payment is required before any meaningful assessment of the essay can be made. Although these essaybanks are not yet used extensivelly, it would be foolish to ignore their existence. Rather than dismiss them out of hand they can be used to stimulate discussion with students about time management and academic integrity. If this discussion takes place at an early stage in students’ academic careers when they are most needed so much the better.

One idea is to ask students to find an essay from an essaybank on a topic of their choice, compare this with original work and then check the essay for plagiarism using any of the free plagiarism software currently available. Then ask the students to outline five methods they would use to design out plagiarism in assessments. Harnessing the essaybanks in this way not only alerts the students to your awareness of the websites, but also encourages them to think about the potential consequences of using the material they provide.

Similarly, detection software, despite its name, can also be used to educate rather than punish students. The software currently provided by the JISC, for example, produces an ‘originality report’ highlighting where text in the student’s work has been matched with material already stored in the software database. The report, which is colour-coded, dramatically illustrates where citation has been non-existent or inadequate. Using the software in the early stages of a course and in an environment of constructive feedback, such as a study skills module for example, can stimulate discussion about the need for, and mechanics of, accurate citation before sloppy academic practice becomes entrenched and the consequences of such practice becomes severe.

The existence of essaybanks and the perceived rise in Internet plagiarism represents an opportunity to consider carefully the very nature of assessment and to ensure that students progressing through higher education in the coming years continue to uphold the integrity of academic awards.

Last Modified: 4 June 2010