Ever since the inception of coursework, there have been concerns about the potential for abuse. Stories abound of pushy parents who write their children's essays, then complain when they get no more than a C grade. And the recent allegation (albeit dismissed by the exam board) that Prince Harry's teacher completed most of his AS art assignment has highlighted suspicions about staff colluding in unfair practice. Widespread access to the internet means a pupil looking for a short cut to academic success no longer has to trek down to the local library to hunt for material to plagiarise. The recent Tomlinson report recommends a reduction in coursework, but with talk of an extended individual assignment and more internal assessment, the issue is unlikely to go away.
What is it?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to plagiarise is to "take the work or idea of someone else and pretend it is one's own". At its crudest level it might involve copying from another student, a book or a website, or getting someone else to do the writing. But it's not always that clear-cut. Copying doesn't have to be verbatim, so changing a few words or paraphrasing won't get you off the hook; you are still likely to be stealing someone's ideas or intellectual property if the source is not properly acknowledged. Even a meticulously referenced essay can be considered plagiarised if it contains little or no original input. It's also possible to plagiarise yourself, either by submitting the same piece of work for two or more parts of the course, or by drawing on your own previous writing or research without citing it, and so failing to satisfy expectations of originality.
What are the penalties?
Plagiarism often involves the infringement of copyright laws, so it can result in legal action, especially if the perpetrator gains financially from it. We have yet to reach the stage where pupils sue one another for stealing homework, but plagiarism in an academic context is not taken lightly. A spokesperson for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority says: " We set strict guidelines for exam boards to make sure there is no cheating in coursework and ensure they crack down hard on culprits." Pupils can be disqualified from an exam or be marked down and, in extreme cases, an awarding body can impose a ban on candidates sitting any qualifications.
The intention to cheat - or lack of it - is one of the factors taken into consideration. Another is the amount plagiarised, although it is not necessarily the number of words that's important, but the centrality of the ideas to the pupil's work.
How widespread is it?
Attention has recently focused on quantifying the problem in the higher education sector. In a national survey conducted earlier this year by research consultancy FreshMinds and the Plagiarism Advisory Service, 25 per cent of students admitted to some degree of plagiarism. The QCA's 2003 monitoring figures for school-based exams record 1,943 cases of candidate malpractice, with 202 of these involving plagiarism. But these figures represent only those cases that attract serious penalties; anecdotal evidence from teachers suggests they don't give the full picture.
Moya O'Donnell, head of English at Ellen Wilkinson school in the west London borough of Ealing, says: "Experienced teachers who know their pupils well can spot plagiarism a mile off, so the majority of cases never get as far as the exam boards. There's always been some concern about the level of support that middle-class, educated parents are able to offer, but the internet seems to have levelled the playing field. Over the past three or four years we've definitely seen an increase in the number of pupils submitting coursework that contains whole passages or ideas that are not their own."
Pressure to plagiarise
Deliberate cheating is often the result of students feeling under pressure.
Able pupils face high expectations from teachers and parents, while those who struggle may feel a task is beyond them and that cheating is their only option. And with pupils often asked to produce coursework for several subjects within a short space of time, some will inevitably take short cuts.
But not all plagiarists are deliberate cheats. Dr Fiona Duggan, manager of the Plagiarism Advisory Service, set up at Northumbria University to raise awareness of the issue, says many people who copy are unaware they're doing anything wrong. "The most common reaction from undergraduates challenged by their tutors is astonishment followed by a claim that they've always worked that way," she says.
Lack of understanding of acceptable practice is even more likely to be a factor among school students. While most would understand that copying a friend's essay is wrong, the boundary between plagiarism and legitimate research is often blurred. They lack the experience to distinguish between intellectual property and "common knowledge", information that is generally well known or freely available from several sources, and the skills to record and cite sources correctly. And in a system that often encourages pupils to work together, there may be insufficient clarity about the level of originality expected in an individual assignment arising from group work.
Teachers in collusion
When it comes to getting results, the heat's not just on pupils. In the era of league tables, teachers are expected to deliver the goods too. The QCA's code of practice states that teachers must "record full details of the nature of all assistance given to individual candidates that is beyond that of the teaching group as a whole". But last year, a National Union of Teachers survey of members' attitudes to coursework found concern in the profession that pressure on teachers could lead to some overstepping the mark to give their pupils the edge. In 2003, awarding bodies banned four teachers for giving candidates inappropriate help with A-level coursework.
When coursework is submitted, student and teacher usually have to sign a form stating that it is the candidate's own work. Yet according to one A-level English moderator, plagiarised work is rife. "There are students who try to pass off rock lyrics as their original poetry, and others who use material from websites virtually unaltered, including, for instance, American spellings. It is so blatant that I can't believe teachers are fooled, yet they allow the work to go through."
Banking on the internet
Illegal downloading of music from the internet is widespread, so it's easy to understand why teenagers might view all online material as up for grabs.
A pupil who accepts that it's wrong to copy chunks from a book into an essay might not think twice about cutting and pasting from a website.
As well as the wealth of publicly available web pages, there is also a proliferation of "essay banks", offering anything from school coursework assignments to university dissertations. These sites are big business in the United States, where many originate. Although their stated purpose is usually to help students research essay topics, names such as Cheathouse and School-sucks seem likely to attract pupils looking for a short cut. A few have free content, but most offer downloadable essays for a fixed price per item, an annual membership charge, or in return for the student submitting some of his or her own essays.
Some sites consist of essays contributed by school students, and a lack of quality control means they are often of dubious standard. Others offer custom-written essays and will even tailor them, at a price, to a particular grade or a pupil's own style to avert suspicion.
Similar UK-based sites tend to be more circumspect. Coursework.info claims to be the largest database of UK-oriented coursework in the world, with more than 64,000 members. Membership costs pound;9.99 a month, or pound;21.99 a year. Alternatively, pupils can gain access to the content by submitting three essays of their own. The site is careful to state that it does not produce custom-written essays, and warns users that the content is for research purposes only, with a clear warning against plagiarism.
Another site, A-level Coursework UK, does offer custom-written pieces costing between pound;100 and pound;200 for a 2,000-word essay. But its sales manager, Jonathon Cooke, says: " Our essays are intended as models to give pupils an insight into how to create their own work. Our terms and conditions of sale clearly state that they are not to be used for illegal purposes. We've had pupils sending in examples of their writing and asking us to imitate the style but, of course, we categorically refuse to do this." Ultimately, though, such sites can exercise little control over what students do with the essays once they have bought them.
A cultural issue
There is by no means worldwide agreement on what constitutes plagiarism, and this needs to be considered in our multicultural classrooms. A 2003 study at Lancaster University of foreign students' understanding of plagiarism highlighted several differences. The concept of individual ownership of ideas and words is much stronger in the West than in some other cultures, where knowledge may be perceived as communally owned. And with celebrities using unacknowledged ghostwriters to produce their life stories, and politicians delivering speeches they have had written for them as if they were their own, attitudes to plagiarism in the UK can be confusing for students from overseas.
Education systems and practices abroad can also shape attitudes. Citation of sources is irrelevant where a course is built around learning the content of one textbook. And the ability to memorise large amounts of information verbatim is highly valued in some systems. As the Lancaster report makes clear, teachers need to be sensitive to these differences. For example, memorisation is not incompatible with sophisticated levels of understanding and should not be equated with rote learning. And it is often easier to spot plagiarism in the work of pupils for whom English is not a first language, which may lead to the conclusion, not necessarily correct, that it's more of a problem among ethnic minority students.
Searching out the cheats
Higher education institutions are increasingly using sophisticated electronic detection devices to tackle the problem. Many are based on Turnitin, a system developed in the US. Assignments are checked against a constantly updated bank of more than 4.5 million pages of internet content, as well as millions of published works and previously submitted essays. An "originality report" is then generated that highlights passages found elsewhere and provides links to the sources.
Obviously, such devices are not needed at school level, where asking pupils to elaborate on suspect passages is usually sufficient. Alternatively, typing a few phrases into a search engine such as Google will often reveal the source of the work, unless it is password-protected, as is some essay bank material.
According to the Joint Council for Qualifications, the organisation that represents the awarding bodies for GCSE and A-level, there are systems in place for detecting unfair practice. External moderators who check samples of coursework are trained to look out for plagiarism, and the work of candidates who do particularly well in coursework and badly in exams is subject to further checking. But the system isn't foolproof. While plagiarism is often obvious in the work of a less able pupil, it is more easily masked by an academic high-flyer with a sophisticated command of language.
In your own words
The expertise of teachers remains the first line of defence. Vague or cliched essay titles, especially if the same one is set every year, invite pupils to plagiarise, whereas sharply focused and imaginative assignments are likely to encourage original thinking. Building an oral element into the assessment process can help, as it provides an opportunity to check if there is real understanding. Plagiarism in creative writing tasks can also be weeded out by requiring pupils to provide a commentary on their influences and the processes they go through in producing the work. "We need to be much more explicit in teaching children what plagiarism is and how to avoid it," says Ms O'Donnell. "With so many resources available and a curriculum that encourages pupils to read widely and engage with other viewpoints, just saying they mustn't copy is far too vague."
Telling the cut-and-pasters where to stick it
The move towards "information literacy" is an important component of a resource pack devised by Dr Audrey Sutton, senior resource librarian at the North Ayrshire Education Resource Centre in Scotland. "The project arose from my PhD on how children become critical of information sources. My observation in schools showed that a coherent approach to information literacy was often lacking in the curriculum so I decided to create a resource to address this," she says.
It includes activities that explicitly teach pupils to interpret and synthesise rather than merely copy. It also aims to develop students'
understanding of issues such as ownership of texts and the necessity of quotation and referencing. Dr Sutton believes information literacy should be a core skill from the word go, and the pack includes materials aimed at pupils from early years to secondary. Although produced in Scotland, most of the activities are applicable to the English curriculum or could be used as models to tailor work to specific subject areas. It is being piloted in schools and will be available in March next year. Teachers interested in the pack can contact Dr Sutton (see resources).
Main text: Caroline Roberts Photographs: GettyAdditional research: Sarah Jenkins
Did you know?
* Internet sites charge up to pound;200 for a custom-written essay of around 2,000 words
* Twenty-five per cent of university students in the UK admit plagiarising the work of others, and many say they learned this way of working while at school
* In 2003, more than 200 pupils were found guilty by their exam board of malpractice involving plagiarism, and four teachers were banned by awarding bodies for giving pupils "inappropriate help" with their coursework
* One online essay bank claims to have more than 64,000 members, each paying up to pound;9.99 a month
* Higher education institutions are increasingly using sophisticated electronic detection devices to tackle the problem
* The Plagiarism Advisory Service (www.jiscpas.ac.uk) provides advice, educational materials and links.
* The US site www.plagiarism.org has a wealth of information and printable handouts , as well as links to the Turnitin plagiarism detection resource.
* A recently updated version of Cite Them Right: referencing made easy, by Richard Pears, shows students how to reference all resources from text messages to theses. (pound;3.50 from Northumbria University Press; email: email@example.com).
* Dr Audrey Sutton, North Ayrshire Education Resource Centre, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
* The QCA code of practice can be found at www.qca.org.ukaboutboard6295.html.
Next week: Smoking