University Research, Plagiarism and the Internet: Problems and Possible Solutions


J. Barrie Thompson (UK)


The call for papers for the conference highlights the fact that information and communication technologies (ICT) can have profound social consequences and that they have caused many organisations to change both their internal operations and the global reach of their activities. This “Transformation of Organisations in the Information Age” has not been restricted simply to commercial businesses. Organisations throughout the public, private and governmental sectors have all experienced enormous changes due to ICT. In particular, during recent years, these changes have been driven by new pressures that are due to the opportunities and facilities offered by the Internet. Universities are one type of organisation that has experienced enormous changes. ICT has resulted in radically changed learning and teaching approaches, the World Wide Web offers an almost boundless information resource, and students are no longer constrained by physical limitations on attendance. With developments in distance education and in the functions and facilities which can be supported online Universities can now operate well outside their previous physical boundaries. No longer are they the ivory-towered insular bastions of learning but organisations that must survive in a global market place with a world-wide audience.

The sources and volume of information readily available to staff, researchers, and students today is far beyond the imagination of researchers of a mere twenty years ago (a time when I undertook academic research in the area of solid state physics). No longer is information held in the dusty recesses of libraries guarded by the academic librarians. It is instantly on hand via the Internet and on-line databases. More importantly, such resources are not seen as just the domain of researchers but of all students within an institution. Perhaps over the last decade, one clear development we have seen in learning approaches is a greater and greater expectation that undergraduates, as they progress through the stages of their degree programs, will be able to undertake tasks at higher intellectual levels relying more and more on academic resources, and that postgraduate students on master’s level programmes will be able to evaluate critically evaluate current research and advanced scholarship [1]. However, the range and volume of information resources that are now so easily available has a major downside. This is that it has exacerbated the age-old academic problem of plagiarism. The means to “take” or “lift” information or text is a simple “Click. Cut and Paste” away. In addition, there is the problem of World Wide Web sites that will sell existing student reports or even produce new ones to order. The purpose of such sites is quite clear – it is simply to help students cheat.

At the University of Sunderland in the UK we offer a range of taught masters programmes in computing. Within each of these programmes we include a compulsory research skills module entitled “Research, Ethical, Professional and Legal Issues” (REPLI) an outline of which is appended to this abstract. The aim of the module is “to provide the students with an ability to undertake postgraduate level research and an appreciation of relevant ethical, professional and legal issues”. Essentially the ethical, professional and legal issues provide a research domain but the overall purpose is to ensure that the students gain research skills that will support them in the rest of their programme, in their future careers, and that they will undertake their research activities in an ethical and professional manner. Most importantly we wish to ensure that they are aware of issues associated with cheating (including plagiarism) and the means that are to available to prevent/detect such cheating.

The final paper for ETHICOMP 2002 will review the problems outlined above and will detail the approaches that we have adopted within the REPLI module to address them. Individual sections of the paper will detail:

  • The philosophy behind the module, overall learning and teaching approach, and our approach to assessment.
  • The range of information sources available to the students.
  • Our use of “How to cheat” and “How to get caught” lecture sessions
  • The use of World Wide Web tools in the detection of plagiarism (such as Turnitin [2])
  • Our use of peer group reviewing processes to deter and detect plagiarism

Finally the paper will present an evaluation of our approach and details of how we plan to progress matters in the future.


The framework for higher education qualifications in England Wales and Northern Ireland, Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, United Kingdom, available from

Turnitin from: