The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

2.1 The scale of the problem

'Plagiarism' derives from the Latin word plagiarius, meaning 'kidnapper' or 'abductor'. It is the theft of someone's creativity, ideas or language; something that strikes at the very heart of academic life. It is a form of cheating and is generally regarded as being morally and ethically unacceptable.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that plagiarism is such an emotionally charged issue. Discussing the matter with students in the first class meeting of term can be a little tricky.

'The New Plagiarism requires little effort and is geometrically more powerful. While the pre-modem student might misappropriate a dozen ideas from a handful of thinkers, the post-modem student can download and save hundreds of pages per hour. We have moved from the horse and buggy days of plagiarism to the Space Age without stopping for the horseless carriage.'
McKenzie (1998)

If evidence is required of this alarming rise in the incidence of plagiarism, it can be found in the extensive reproduction and distribution of student essays through online 'paper mill' companies - businesses that make up arguably one of the most successful internet industries after pornography and gambling. Indeed, as The Economist observed in the aftermath of the dotcom crash, these cheat sites are one of the few dotcom business models that continue to prosper (Anon., 2002).

Some sites rely on advertising revenue and supply services free-of-charge or facilitate exchange (students submitting a paper and getting one in return). In most cases, however, it is fee-for-service. Students can purchase pre-written or commissioned papers, and while the format varies slightly from one operator to another, customers can pay anywhere from US$1 to $10 per page.

While accurate statistics are not always easy to obtain, given the dynamism of the industry, cursory perusal of the websites of the leading companies would suggest that, taken together, these sites are likely to receive visitor numbers running into millions each week. For example, Schoolsucks.com, a long-time market participant with around 20,000 members, claims to have 250,000 hits per day. Meanwhile, another company claiming to have led the industry since 1995, Cheathouse.com, boasts a membership of over 140,000 (as of mid-2004), which continues to grow by a few hundred each day. The number of hits on a website does not correspond with the number of sales, of course, but equally, it is hard to imagine that everyone visits these sites out of curiosity.

The dramatic expansion of this online service is testimony to its commercial viability, as testified by the large number of advertisers these companies manage to attract to their sites. The full extent of the growth is well documented by the Kimbel Library at Coastal Carolina University, which maintains a comprehensive list of the world's cheat sites. In March 1999, there were around 35 such sites. By September 2003, this number had climbed to around 250 general sites, plus 80 subject-specific sites (Coastal Carolina University, 2002).

Top Tips

  • Always ensure that you are familiar with your institution's plagiarism policies and regulations, and be able to explain them in jargon-free terms to the students.
  • Strike an appropriate balance between 'encouragement' of the learning process and the potentially serious consequences if plagiarism is proven.
  • A worthwhile exercise is to spend some time in class (or interactively online) going through real examples of what does and does not constitute acceptable practice. A suggested method of doing this is contained in section 3.

Given these developments, it is not surprising that a large volume of literature has emerged in the last few years focusing on the subject of plagiarism in the higher education sector. The general consensus appears to be that, while plagiarism is not a new phenomenon, its incidence has grown in scale to the point where it is almost of epidemic proportions.

In the USA, for example, research indicates that cheating among undergraduate students has increased steadily over the past half-century or so from around 23 per cent to as much as 90 per cent (Drake, 1941; Jensen et al., 2002). It is true that some studies put the 'cheat rate' somewhat lower than this, but, these studies notwithstanding, there has been sufficient concern over the trend in student behaviour for the Center for Academic Integrity to be established, a consortium now comprising more than 320 institutions of higher education.

In the UK, meanwhile, the plagiarism problem has been considered serious enough for affected parties to seek the assistance of the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), a strategic advisory committee working on behalf of the funding bodies for further and higher education in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to investigate electronic solutions to the issue of plagiarism. The key outcome to emerge from this initiative was the establishment of a national plagiarism advisory service to act as a source of information for teaching staff and institutions, including a national electronic plagiarism detection service (see section 2.3).