Double trouble for the plagiarists

7th December 2007 at 00:00

Imagine for a moment that you are a fresh-faced 18-year-old. You want to go to university but find the 600-or-so-word statement you are required to write to sell yourself to your prospective college too daunting to contemplate.

So you go online and find any number of "model" statements, though you may have to purloin your mum's credit card to get the really good stuff - on offer for a bargain pound;25 for a pack of 10 from a variety of apparently reliable sources.

Then it's simply a case of cutting, pasting, adding your own name and sending it all off to Ucas, which runs the applications system. Job done. Problem solved. Now all you have to do is wait for the offers to roll in.

Actually, no. Because next time you look in your email inbox, there is likely to be a message from Ucas telling you that Copycatch, its plagiarism detection software, has you bang to rights.

It gets worse. They have shopped your crafty scheme to all your university choices and there is also a link to that beautiful statement of yours all marked up in glorious colour to show the extent of your "borrowed" phrasing.

Such plagiarism is not new, but what is new this year is that Ucas has decided to toughen up its act by launching its Similarity Detection Process and letting all concerned in the applications game know about it.

It is a big operation. Copycatch already has a vast library of statements and all new ones that come in are added to it. Its operators have gone on to the internet themselves, trawling through what is on offer and adding much of that, too. The message is that if you copy, you are likely to be caught.

Last year, when Ucas did a survey, its "trawl" landed a huge catch of would-be doctors who had cheated on their medical school applications. More than 200 had accessed the same website and claimed to have become interested in medicine when, at the age of 8, they accidentally burnt a hole in their pyjamas.

Naturally, many words and phrases are innocently duplicated in personal statements and Copycatch ignores them - "and", "so", "with", "football". At first sight, it may seem strange that "Duke of Edinburgh" is also included, but this no doubt reflects the popularity of the awards scheme.

If, like me, you are a teacher guiding and advising students on the Ucas applications process, this will seem like good stuff. Cheats deserve to be caught and exposed. But go online yourself and look at the sites which provide the so-called "sample" materials and you soon realise that there are other ways to tart up your statement that are much harder to detect. For these you need money, and rather more than the pound;25 charged for "exemplar" materials.

Several agencies offer gold, silver and bronze services, either for creating a personalised statement or transforming your existing statement into a much more dynamic piece of writing. Go for gold and it is likely to cost you, or your parent, anything up to pound;150 a time. But looking at some of the examples provided as a come-on, it is clear that they really can turn dull, pedestrian stuff into something much more readable.

Is this, though, any more than just a commercial extension of what is going on already in schools and colleges up and down the land? I encourage my students to run their fledgling statements by me. I often suggest overhauls, amendments, restructuring. I have also been known to indicate the odd error in grammar, punctuation and spelling.

True, I don't write or rewrite them myself. Neither do I charge pound;150 a time. From now on, though, I will be offering an all-purpose, attention- grabbing first sentence that is guaranteed to beat Ucas's detection software. It runs as follows: I first became interested in anthropology when I went round to Buckingham Palace to play football with the Duke of Edinburgh.

If that doesn't tweak the interest of a bored admissions officer, nothing will.

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