Many students do not understand what plagiarism is, according to a Europe-wide study.
Asked about a situation where 40 percent of a submission is copied word for word without using quotations, citations or references, 91 percent of respondents accurately identify this as plagiarism.
However, in the same situation where "some changes" have been made to the copied text, almost 40 percent say they do not think it is plagiarism or are unsure whether it is. Among British students the figure is 31 percent, compared with just 6 percent in the "word for word" scenario.
"It's surprising how many students are not sure whether that's plagiarism or have changed their minds from a previous question, when actually it's the same," said Irene Glendinning, a member of the Impact of Policies for Plagiarism in Higher Education across Europe project.
"You've still taken the idea and almost the same words, and used them without acknowledgment. You could even say it is worse, because the student is trying to deceive that it is their work or avoid detection software."
The study is the result of a three-year project led by Coventry University, based on an anonymous and voluntary survey of almost 5,000 students, teachers and senior managers across Europe.
Data from the survey also show that almost a third of British students think they have plagiarized either deliberately or accidentally. This compares with 65 percent in Lithuania, 46 percent in France and only 10 percent in Germany.
However, Glendinning, academic manager for student experience at Coventry's Faculty of Engineering and Computing, pointed out that the results had to be understood with reference to students' understanding of what plagiarism is. "Some people believe they have never plagiarized. It might be because they haven't, but it might also be that they don't understand what it is," she said.
The results showed that students need more education on the subject, she added.
According to the study, no one knows how prevalent plagiarism is, Glendinning said, including educators in Britain, which in general is "well ahead of the game" in terms of prevention and detection. National data on the subject are collected in countries including Sweden and Austria, but this requires common standards for defining and reporting cases and removing inconsistencies between institutions, something British universities often resist in the name of preserving autonomy, she added.
A part of the study based on interviews with senior higher education figures highlights essay writing mills as an "elephant in the room."
"A lot of research has to be done about how you go about detecting those cases and how you provide satisfactory proof the student didn't do it themselves," said Glendinning. "A lot of countries aren't even aware this is going on."
Over all, the study was likely to present a positively skewed picture of plagiarism policies and procedures in Europe because participation was voluntary and many institutions declined to take part, she added.
The preliminary findings will be presented next week at a conference hosted by Mendel University in the Czech Republic and sponsored by plagiarism detection service Turnitin.