To some, the increasing incidence of plagiarism in the higher education sector (see next section) may be looked upon as perfectly acceptable behaviour. According to author and satirist Stewart Home, plagiarism ‘saves time and effort, improves results, and shows considerable initiative on the part of the plagiarist’ (cited in Duguid, 1996). This line of thinking is predicated upon the notion that there is nothing sinister about the liberal use of other people’s ideas. To plagiarise is not to steal another’s property, it is simply about the spread of information and knowledge.

Indeed, prior to the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, plagiarism was useful in aiding the distribution of ideas and, in this sense, can be said to be an important part of western cultural heritage, up to that point in time. One might argue further that, with the new social conditions that have emerged with the widespread use of ICTs, it has once again become an inevitable part of contemporary culture, although for rather different reasons (Critical Art Ensemble, 1995). Allied to this is the increasingly results-driven education system, with its associated league tables, as well as the increasingly difficult labour market conditions for graduates, resulting from the UK’s wider-access policy for higher education.

Taking a more sceptical view, if we accept that it is typically the academically weaker students who tend to engage in the various forms of plagiarism, it is unlikely that these individuals will, consciously or unconsciously, be part of any crusade to spread information and knowledge. On the other hand, as the statistics cited in the next section would tend to indicate, it cannot be just they who are indulging in unethical practice (unless the majority of students can be described as academically weak!). Why is it, then, that students are resorting to plagiarism in increasingly large numbers?

Irrespective of a student’s ability, pressure to plagiarise can emerge because of a variety of influences. These include, for example:

  • poor time management skills (a problem often exacerbated because of the increasing competition for students’ time arising from the need to work part time or care for children) and an inability to cope with workload (perhaps as a result of class timetables and the corresponding multiple assessment tasks, with submission deadlines often bunched around the same date);
  • a lack of motivation to excel because of a perception that the academic responsible for the class has little enthusiasm for the subject (the students then expending what they consider to be a commensurate amount of effort);
  • increased external pressure to succeed from parents or peers, or for financial reasons;
  • an innate desire to take on and test the system (particularly if the punishment associated with detection is relatively minor);
  • cultural difference in learning and presentation styles where, in some settings, it is considered normal custom and practice to quote the experts without citation (Joint Information Systems Committee, 2003).

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the factors that might be considered responsible for the frequency of plagiarism; suffice to say that it is an indicator of the complexity of the issue. Neither do these factors necessarily explain the increasing incidence of plagiarism. Indeed, many, if not all, of those reasons listed above were in existence prior to the dramatic increase in the number of reported cases of plagiarism. The key explanatory variable, it would seem, is the increasing availability of electronic text. It is this, coupled with any of the above motivations that has spawned the seemingly inexorable rise in student plagiarism.

Top Tips 3

6. Ensure that assessment construction minimises the ease with which plagiarism can be both difficult to resist by the student and difficult for staff to detect (see section 2.5).

7. Be flexible in allowing extensions to deadlines if you are convinced that the only alternative would be to receive a plagiarised submission.

8. Overall, consider co-ordinating the timing of assignments in conjunction with other subjects, with a view to avoiding ‘peak loading’.

The spate of books on the subject, along with the various websites, media reports, conferences and symposia, is testimony to the amount of intellectual energy currently being dedicated to the topic of internet plagiarism. The major preoccupation is with both detection and deterrence: detection by resorting to ‘fighting fire with fire’ using various proprietary and freeware anti-plagiarism packages; deterrence through stressing the importance of education in ethics to ensure that students are not tempted to breach their university honour codes, and through the meting out of stiff penalties to offenders, to send a clear message that plagiarism is behaviour not to be tolerated in any circumstances.