The internet and technology as a whole have given birth to a copy-and-paste generation of students. Notes investigates the issue

Across disciplines, educational backgrounds and language differences, plagiarism does not seem to discriminate.

As a teaching assistant in a university where our student population is as diverse as over 70 nations, speaking approximately 13 languages, the resemblance in cases of plagiarism that I have seen over the past year alone has been uncanny.

Up until a decade ago, more traditional modes of reference - such as journals, interviews and newspaper articles - were the prime sources of research.

To obtain any of these, students had to go through authorised personnel in libraries and shops, teaching staff or even opt for face-to-face interviews.

"When students go through the physical barrier of getting permission, they automatically realise the information they have collected is not theirs," says Nawar Al Hakeem, IT lecturer at the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD).

With a boom in technology and dot com sources, the physical barrier has virtually been removed.

The information is "open and easily accessible", says Dr Lejla Vrazalic, assistant professor of the College of Business at UOWD and coordinator of the Project for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (PELT).

"This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of the websites do not have their authors listed, so [students] see the information on those sites as free to use in any way [they] wish."

"I find it hard to distinguish between the rightful use of information and plagiarism due to the abundant source of data on the net," says Namita Das, a first year student at BITS, Pilani-Dubai Campus (BPDC).

"As it is easily accessible, I have never given a thought to the fact that I have just cut and pasted matter to present in a speech or submit in a paper - that I have actually indulged in plagiarism,' she adds.

Search engines that lead to online journals and websites that sell custom-made reports, chat rooms and discussion boards are all advanced sources of reference that students have begun to use in recent years while researching a paper.

However, it is not only the internet but also technology as a whole that has literally given birth to the copy-and-paste generation of students.

"From scanners with OCR (optical readers) to software that converts voice to text, all these handy tools have made the process of [copying and pasting] easier," says Nowshir Engineer, founder of the Events Management Development Institute (EMDI).

The growing concern over cases of plagiarism cannot be entirely blamed on the sea of readily available digital information. The attitudes of people in general have changed drastically to the concept of plagiarism.

Dr Krishna Kumar Singh, assistant professor at BPDC, says plagiarism was originally thought to apply only to the scientific community and research and development in industrial sectors where people copied someone's work and with a little modification published it or made a profitable business out of it.

"A decade or so ago, teachers themselves did not pay much attention to referencing methods, or plagiarised sources. They were merely interested in the work presented in papers by the students," Nawar adds.

"Now we have workshops, focus groups, lecture sessions dedicated just to inform and educate students and teachers alike on the importance of avoiding plagiarism.

"UOWD, for instance, has strict policies that have been developed in the recent semesters to counter the growing problem, along with punishments that often lead to expulsion from the university for repeat offenders."

Quick-fix solutions

Student attitude is a major factor in the increase of plagiarism. "The main reason students opt for plagiarism is a reflection of modern trends and attitudes," says Professor A. Christopher, vice-president of the S.P. Jain Centre of Management.

He says there seems to be a focus on quick-fix solutions.

Nowshir Engineer says the two main reasons why students resort to plagiarism are diametrically opposite.

"I believe it is the pressure of scoring high marks, doing well to compete for admission [on the one hand]. The second reason is when students are too lazy, do not take studies seriously and generally think it is easy to copy than to study.

"Plagiarism," he says, "using the net is not seen in such a negative light in the student fraternity."

Kauser Jabeen, a student of the EIKON Academy of Hotel Management, defends her peers.

"Often enough we are either not given enough time or do not have enough time since a lot of us are full-time employees, to complete assignments that require a lot of research.

"We once had a project for which we had to find the population demographics of the UAE since the 1980s. My friends and I spent five hours in the library and still came up with nothing. We eventually searched the internet and found it in half an hour!"

Vandana Prabhu, a masters student at EMDI, says: "When I was completing my undergraduate level degree, we did not have access to sufficient books or other forms of traditional research materials that we could actually use to complete our assignments. So we did have to resort to the digital sources."

"Often, the hand-outs given to us by our lecturers were photo copies taken from books that we had no access to," adds Deepti Mehta, a student waiting to join a masters programme at the S.P. Jain Centre of Management.

"So if we used the information from that hand-out it would still be marked as plagiarism. Eventually, I learned to focus more on the digital sources and online sources than traditional ones to avoid plagiarism."

Kauser says: "We often get assignments that include topics which have not been covered in the lectures. In addition, our libraries do not always have books pertaining to the topics of our projects. So we end up using whatever information we get."

Ferdous Jabeen, a student at MAHE Manipal adds: "A lot of my friends do not have a very good background in English. The moment they join university, they are expected to start writing projects and assignment reports. So it is easier for them to copy and paste information from the internet."

Where do you draw the line?

"It is perfectly acceptable to refer to web-based information in reports and essays," says Lejla Vrazalic.

"However, it is important to ensure that the source is a credible one. There are also clear guidelines on how to reference information from the web.

"The author, the title and the year of publication should be stated (if known - and these are known on most credible sites) and in addition to these, the reference should contain the URL of the website and the date it was accessed.

"The date accessed is very important because websites can be taken down so the date can be used to verify that a site existed when a student claims to have accessed it."

Krishna suggests that students inculcate the ideas they read online and imbibe the concepts. "Only then can they reproduce the information in their own words as if they were virgin ideas, unique and different from others."

However, the responsibility does not lie with students alone. "We should not restrict [students] from researching; rather we should give better explanations on particular topics.

"If [a teacher] is not able to convey [concepts and theories] in class, what are students expected to do?" Krishna