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Do you copy?

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courses - There may be nothing new in architecture, but on some courses, staff can find out if students are taking this too literally

It is a high-risk strategy to write an article about plagiarism, open as I am to the charge that my views might have been expressed elsewhere. I take this opportunity therefore to state that any similarity between this and other written work is entirely coincidental? unless otherwise stated.

The issue of students copying others' coursework has a long history but the fact that most students present their written work on computer disk or CD format these days has made the cutand-paste temptation even greater for some. But as the value of education gets lost in testing, rehearsing for testing and attainment targets, many students have become cynical about the charge that they are doing anything wrong. This has not been helped by the diminution of the meaning of 'critical thinking' which, in America, has even emboldened the evolutionists on the pretext that they are critically exploring all sides of the argument. With such a weak grasp of what education is for, it is no surprise that 'knowledge' has become easily confused with 'knowledge gathering'.

Many institutions advise students simply to credit the work they have nicked; many counsel students to understand the error of their ways; and most run courses on how to eference citations. Few get to grips with the fact that students have lost touch with the need for intellectual autonomy.

One of the latest devices that will prove to be the scourge of the blatant plagiarist is the CopyCatch Gold software package. Since students' electronic versions can be processed more easily than handwritten documents, this new software tool helps lecturers do more than just spellcheck and word count. At one demonstration, CopyCatch had the ability to process 50 2,000-word essays in five seconds, looking for obvious and 'unexpected' similarities between texts.

Diplomatically marketed as an aid to help 'prevent accidental plagiarism, ' the manufacturers have developed a student-friendly pre-emptive version called CopyChecker, which splits the screen in two; on one side is the reference document, on the other is the student's work. At the press of a button, the student can see whether his work replicates too obviously that of the core study material (or the stored work of other students) and encourages him or her to make the necessary changes.

While this may look like fair-mindedness on the part of the manufacturer (CSL Software Development) and client university - offering hands-on advice to the student to realise his or her unintentional repetition of work by others - it could cynically be seen as a licence to cheat more subtly. After all, the data shows you how not to get caught out by the sister CopyCatch programme.

But even so, surely the problem of educational standards lies in the downgrading of an understanding among students of what education, knowledge and reasoning really mean. Could it be said that this software - or more correctly, a reliance on this software - instils greater credence for presentational rather than intellectual independence?

I think so. To be fair, this is not the fault of the software manufacturer but of the drift in educational clarity.

It might be cynical to assume that as students become cannier, software packages like CopyCatch will root out only the most blatant offenders.

However, it might also be true that instructing students in the art of avoidance, rather than a more positive focus on teaching good practice, will reinforce the problem that students have little understanding of the purpose of learning, other than to fulfil another Department for Education and Skills' performance indicator. It might be the case that under such a system overt plagiarism decreases; but it could equally be the case that the innocent regurgitation of old ideas will be replaced by an even more formulaic approach to knowledge.

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