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3.4 Student plagiarism

A downside of the ease of access provided by the Web is the great ease with which students can plagiarise existing material. Feeding this temptation are a spate of so-called 'research assistance' essay banks. Students donate or sell their essays to a bank, along with feedback they were given by their tutors. Other students can then browse through these to find an essay similar to what they are working on and pay a small fee to download it. Each site may have several hundred essays specifically on economics, although many are of such poor quality that students have little to gain by submitting them. Figure 4 shows some of the economics content offered by Coursework.info, which invites users to 'invest in [their] education' by paying to download the essays. Similar sites are listed by the JISC Plagiarism Advisory Service.

Figure 4. Essays on offer from Coursework.info

Chizmar and Walbert (1999) advise that plagiarism 'has led some tutors to discourage the use of Web sources. An alternative, however, is to change the nature of assignments to make cutting and pasting a virtue, and to teach critical use of the Web.'

As with student plagiarism generally, various kinds of counter-measure can be taken (see Kerkvliet and Sigmund (1999) for an analysis of the effectiveness of various measures and the Plagiarism chapter of this handbook for much more advice). We can make sure students understand the definition of plagiarism and the severity of its consequences. We can set essay titles that are novel or specific, or that refer to current events (see the Plagiarism chapter of this handbook). What we cannot reasonably do is check all the online sources from which a suspicious essay might have come. Fortunately, the technology can help, in the form of the JISC Plagiarism Detection Service, which is available to many UK higher education institutions.

This service is quite quick to use after the initial investment of time to register a class and list the students. Students can then submit directly to the software via a URL that you provide, or you can upload a document yourself. The service displays an originality report, colour-coding passages that are similar, in a slightly fuzzy sense, to text from the Web, from subscription services and from other students' submissions.

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4.1 The information skills challenge