ICT - Whose idea was it anyway?

Students who plagiarise may simply not have been taught how to cite sources and lack understanding of academic integrity. George Cole reports on how technology can help

George Cole

Plagiarism. The word conjures up visions of pupils deliberately copying other people's work and trying to pass it off as their own. But in reality, plagiarism is much more complicated. At its core, plagiarism involves using other people's thoughts, words or ideas without acknowledgement.

But ignorance rather than dishonesty is often the main cause of plagiarism, says Victoria Clayton, head of ICT at Sherborne School in Dorset: "Students often don't know how to cite references." Ms Clayton has created an academic integrity code for her school, which puts plagiarism, cheating and dishonesty into distinct categories.

The internet has transformed the scope for plagiarising other people's work. Resources such as Google and Wikipedia can be abused, and there are websites (known as paper mills or essay banks) that offer completed essays, often for a fee. When you add the ability to copy and paste text, it is easy to see why some see the internet as a plagiarist's paradise. But Barry Calvert, spokesman for iParadigms, which provides plagiarism detection software for the education sector called Turnitin, argues this is not the case.

"The internet is a very positive tool that has opened up a massive wealth of information for students to tap into," he says. "The key is to make students responsible learners and responsible researchers." He says teachers need to stress to pupils that the internet is not a free-for-all and that copyright and intellectual property rights apply online.

Many courses have projects and essays as part of their assessment and this has made plagiarism a more pressing issue for schools. The International Baccalaureate (IB), offered by an increasing number of schools as an alternative to A-levels, is perhaps particularly vulnerable, with students required to carry out independent research and then write a 4,000-word extended essay.

But there is a concern that students plagiarise because they do not know how to cite sources. Mr Calvert says schools can help address the issue. "From a pedagogical point of view, teachers can create a culture of honesty," he says. The potential for plagiarism can be reduced by setting pupils tasks that require them to apply their knowledge rather than simply provide facts.

Detecting plagiarism is not always easy, although changes in writing style or the use of US spellings can sometimes be tell-tale signs. About 90 schools in the UK are using Turnitin to detect plagiarism. Schools pay an annual subscription for the service, based on how many pupils they have. Turnitin has an online database containing more than 130 million student papers, 90,000 journals, periodicals and books, and 13 billion indexed web pages that can be cross-referenced for plagiarism.

Pupils or teachers upload essays in electronic form (such as a Word document or PDF file) and the work is then checked with Turnitin. The software looks for similarities between the text and the database material and then produces a report that highlights them, provides links to the original source material, and gives an overall similarity percentage. An essay with a score of 90 per cent, for example, contains material almost entirely from other sources.

Mr Calvert says care should be taken when using Turnitin. "It's not designed as a catch-and-punish system but as a means of helping students become better researchers," he says. "For example, the system leaves it for the teacher to interpret the results: is it simply a case of not citing correctly or blatant plagiarism? It's about allowing students to learn from their own mistakes and take a more responsible approach to work."

Sherborne School is using the system with its IB students. "We're not using Turnitin to catch people out," says Ms Clayton. "We're using it to help students develop the skills they need, such as how to insert footnotes, produce endnotes and create a bibliography."

She says teachers sit down with pupils to go through the results. "Some phrases are commonplace, so it's not unusual to find that 10 to 20 per cent of an essay is highlighted," she adds. Sherborne School also plans to use Turnitin with its A-level extended project qualification students, who have to produce a project or dissertation for assessment.

Box Hill School in Dorking has been using Turnitin with its IB students for two years. "It's really useful and the colour highlighting makes it's easy to see where the information has come from," says librarian Sarah Pavey. "We're using it as a teaching aid. The students initially saw it as a threat, but their response is now positive." One advantage is that the pupils get the results very quickly, she adds.

Taunton School in Somerset also uses Turnitin with its IB students. IB co-ordinator Martin Bluemel gets the students to upload their essays to the website and looks at the results with each one. "It's one element in our armoury," he says. "A real bonus is that Turnitin lets you set a deadline for the assignment - if it's not uploaded by a particular time, it doesn't get assessed."


- If you plan to use a plagiarism detection system, make sure you discuss it with your pupils beforehand.

- Plagiarism detection systems should be used as teaching aids, not punishment.

- Hand-written essays and diagrams cannot be analysed by Turnitin.

- Good internet access is a requirement for online plagiarism detection systems.

- Ensure that your pupils are aware of the issues of plagiarism.

- Teach your pupils research skills, which include the ability to cite sources accurately.

- The website Plagiarism Advice (www.plagiarismadvice.org) has lots of useful information on tackling plagiarism, and includes free downloadable guides from Ofqual for teachers, students and parents.

For more information on Turnitin, go to www.turnitin.com.

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George Cole

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