Internet plagiarism 'is rife at Oxford'
By John Clare, Education Editor
Plagiarism at Oxford appears to be rife among both undergraduate and postgraduate students, with most of it passing unnoticed by examiners and tutors, the university admitted for the first time yesterday.
Prof Alan Grafen, the senior proctor, who is the university's chief disciplinary officer, said the number of students copying other people's work without acknowledgment threatened to undermine the worth of an Oxford degree.
He said the problem had become so serious that all students should be required to sign an affidavit for every piece of work they submitted, though he acknowledged that it might not prove much of a deterrent.
Prof Grafen laid much of the blame on schools for encouraging a practice of "submitting work in class that is more or less cobbled together from the internet". He went on: "Rising generations thus arrive at university with an ingrained habit acquired through earlier encouragement and approval."
Although only 10 cases of "intentional or reckless" plagiarism were detected at Oxford last year, Prof Grafen said the evidence suggested that "the incidence exceeds the observed events, perhaps by a considerable margin, perhaps by a considerable multiple".
Writing in Oxford Magazine, the dons' house journal, Prof Grafen said: "Plagiarism can be defined in a variety of ways, but the dominant form that reaches the Proctors' Office is simple copying.
"Hard though it may be to believe, students type word-for-word, and increasingly copy-and-paste from the internet, and submit essays containing whole pages of this verbatim material."
When a case was suspected, it was referred to the proctors, who took it before a disciplinary court. This had the power to reduce a mark, fail the student or permanently expel him or her - all sanctions that had been applied in the past year.
Prof Grafen, a member of the university's zoology department, told dons: "It is essential that any hint of copying or unacknowledged paraphrase is pursued.
"Vigilance is required for the sake of the education our students receive and also in order not to create implicit understandings that plagiarism is acceptable in practice, despite preaching and signing of affidavits."
A number of recent cases had involved students whose first language was not English and who had "unfortunately gained the impression" that copying was tacitly accepted.
Supervisors should be "alert to sudden and unexplained improvements" in the standard of students' English.
Dons should also resist "siren voices" claiming that in a scientific D Phil, for example, it was the science that mattered, not the words.
"An employer is entitled to assume that the holder of an Oxford D Phil can explain in his or her own words, in English, the background to the research carried out," he said.
Prof Grafen called for all new students to receive a lecture on plagiarism in which they were told that "any six consecutive words identical with a source need to be acknowledged, and an unacknowledged string of 10 consecutive identical words is pretty watertight evidence of malpractice".
26 February 2006: Essays for sale from £1.50 on internet bring calls to scrap coursework23 November 2005: Students 'buy' their way from A-levels to degrees5 June 2005: Computer says 'fail': now machines mark student essays
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