POPULAR web-based auction sites such as eBay could be contributing to the rising number of plagiarism cases occurring at universities, throwing into question higher education standards in the UK in general.
According to academics at the University of Glamorgan, more and more students at UK universities are turning to commercial sales sites to both buy and sell dissertations and essays on the web.
Dr Mike Reddy, who did the research, commented, "Since the introduction of the internet to university life, students have been downloading research material from web sites and essay banks. However our current research shows a growing trend towards students purchasing essays from sites such as eBay under the belief that, should they choose to copy the work, they run less of a risk of getting caught.
"Essays on these sites appear for sale without the usual 'only for research' tags, common on essay bank sites, giving purchasing students the impression that they can legitimately claim it as their own. This in turn can falsely inflate a student's overall degree grade which could result in them gaining a job outside of their actual capabilities."
By studying the site over a short period of time, senior lecturer Dr Reddy, and his colleagues at the University of Glamorgan's School of Computing, found that particular buyers show a repetitive history of purchasing dissertations and reports on related topics.
Sellers also show a track record of selling essays on a range of topics, and in one notable case offering advice on how to get the dissertation past the tutor.
"EBay keeps a history of names and name changes of its sellers and buyers and one only needs to log on to the site and check the individual profiles to discover that certain buyers and sellers do business on a frequent basis," explained Dr Reddy, who is a member of the Joint Information Systems Committee Plagiarism Advisory Service.
But while some buyers might consider eBay a "safer" source than downloading information from the web which is less likely to be detected, research shows that at least one essay bank site is using eBay as a front for sales.
Some sellers even appear to regularly sell the same item, despite statements such as "your only chance to own" and "one time only". This could actually result in a positive identification by on-line plagiarism detection service, TurnitinUK if the essay had previously been submitted.
Dr Reddy explained, "It is easy to see past transactions for a particular seller on eBay, by searching within completed items, an option that is present on eBay to allow buyers to gauge the relative value of auctions. It was shocking to see apparently exclusive dissertations for sale numerous times, and hard to credit that a buyer might be taken in by these claims which are clearly intended to give the impression that the purchase will somehow be safer."
University academics are encouraged to enter all work submitted by students into the TurnitinUK system to help in the detection of plagiarised work in the future.
Along with essays and dissertations, PowerPoint presentations are the latest medium to be attracting buyers on the site.
"Presentations are a common form of assessment, intended to demonstrate a student's understanding of a topic. Tutors rarely ask to see copies of the actual presentation slides so the fact that they can be purchased is a worrying trend," said Dr Reddy.
"Unless all forms of document are submitted to TurnitinUK, we lose the 'herd immunity' that improves the effectiveness of plagiarism prevention."
The high volume of academic material bought and sold on eBay raises some serious issues for the education world.
Many universities hold the intellectual property rights of their assignments, making it illegal for them to be sold by an individual without permission.
There are even cases where students and institutions are named in the descriptions of items on eBay which raises the possibility that those universities could mount legal claims against sellers, and potentially strip students of their degrees, should their work be found for sale.
Dr Reddy commented, "Universities need to continue to look at prevention methods for ensuring the originality of the work submitted to them. Perhaps we need to introduce a measure by which students declare that they will not sell or give away their work without prior permission.
"More research clearly needs to be done into these commercial sites to reassure academics concerned with the provenance of their students' work."