The age of plagiarism?

Some years ago I was an external examiner at another university. One of my tasks was to consider the evaluation by the university’s own examiners of the students’ final year project work. One student had written a lengthy dissertation about the impact of the common law on trade union organisation. As I read this, it seemed very familiar to me; and rightly so, as I had written it myself. The student in question had lifted a whole chapter from a book I had written a few years earlier and had presented it as his work. I had just been newly appointed as the external examiner, and the student probably had no idea that I would be reading his work. What amused me even more, though, was that the two internal examiners had not noticed the plagiarism and had given the student’s effort (in reality word for word my own work) a mark of 58 per cent. I was duly put in my place as regards the quality of my book; while the student was left to face the disciplinary process of the university.

In my then university I had also come across a small number of attempts at plagiarism, but none as blatant as that. In those years plagiarism, however unacceptable, still required a fair amount of effort if it was to pass muster; at the very least it was necessary for the miscreant to seek out a library, or a bookshop, or the help of somebody more expert or better connected. But with the arrival of the internet plagiarism has become an industry, and materials that can be copied are easy to come by. And as at the same time universities have tended to move away from supervised examinations as the main form of assessment, the opportunities for offending have grown exponentially.

So what do we do? Well, technology can provide both the poison and the antidote, as there is now software that can detect plagiarism. However, much of the debate about the phenomenon is at what I might call the technical level, addressing issues of detection in particular. Perhaps those are the wrong issues with which to begin. Plagiarism is in the first instance an indication of pedagogy gone wrong. Many who plagiarise do not do so in a spirit of fraudulent malice, but feel it is the educational counterpart to tax evasion: naughty, but almost heroic. But of course (like tax evasion) it is not heroic, and we need to ensure that this is a shared judgement. It is necessary now to recover a sense of the purpose and excitement of the educational mission. Or if we cannot do that, we need to go more with the flow and show students what they can legitimately do with materials they find: sometimes the difference between plagiarism and good research is merely the attribution, so that once students understand that finding fresh sources is actually good work if only they will credit it.

It was always likely that the tide of accessible information technology would produce new pedagogical challenges. So far our response has mainly been to point the finger at those who exploit it, rather than making a more coherent effort at changing the assumptions of education to fit the technological advances.

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5 Comments on “The age of plagiarism?”

  1. ultan Says:

    I agree. I think it’s an indicator of the wider learning environment. Perhaps you can’t decontextualize it from other issues like you’ve raised, such as the need to change approaches to lecturing.

    There will always be some people who do it deliberately just to see if they can beat the system, and outgame the detection software, sure.

    On the whole though, I don’t think people do it to be naughty or to make a statement. Some might have run out of time to do proper research, but I would guess most offenders just simply “can’t be arsed”. They’re not motivated by the subject or the assignment, and that’s a real challenge.

  2. Jilly Says:

    Ah, like most lecturers who are in the classroom every day, this is a personal bugbear!

    I’m afraid that I take a more pessimistic view of what’s happening. I think there are three central issues:

    1) it’s an indication of a highly functional attitude to being in university. It could be summarized as, I’m here to get a degree and how I get it isn’t really important, so cheating will be considered if I can get away with it. It fits into the ‘will this be on the test?’ mentality which we see more of each year. Without over-stretching the point, I think it’s also in line with a wider culture in which tax evasion is seen as potentially ‘heroic’…

    2) it’s also a problem because students arrive in 1st year at university quite literally never having HEARD of footnotes, let alone the principles behind them. I hold the school system responsible for much of this problem – I see no reason why honours level Leaving Cert students (if not younger) couldn’t be expected to provide references and bibliographies for the essays they do at school. In fact it amazes me – and I think speaks volumes of the problems with the Leaving Cert system – that this has never been considered, since it points to an entire philosophy of learning which is dubious.

    3) students are more and more resistant to reading – even what’s on their reading-lists, let alone wider reading. Because of this, they aren’t used to reading work which contains references, which in turn means they don’t grasp why they should be writing it.

    I spend hours and hours each year just trying to explain the underlying principles of referencing to students (as do all of my colleagues), so it’s not that they don’t know. But they are extremely resistant to the principle of it. Which is socially interesting, but not heartening.

    And in answer to Ultan, it’s worth noting that these problems are contemporaneous to the introduction of contemporary ‘teaching and learning’ strategies, and the attacks on ‘traditional’ lectures – perhaps because such developments increasingly remove the students’ responsibility in the learning process.

  3. Iain Says:

    Fascinating topic. Not sure though I agree with the commenter that says that new developments remove the students’ responsibilities compared with ‘traditional’ lectures. Much of the plagiarism that is talked about at events such as the annual plagiarism conference (sad that such exists, but very informative!) is in ‘traditional’ disciplines where students are given the same old essay assignment that has been handed out for years.

    And besides although it might have taken more effort in the pre-computer age to plagiarise (although a visit to a library isnt that difficult), it was also much, much harder to detect so the chances of a student ‘getting away with it’ were probably a lot higher.

    Good teaching strategies/policies are those that should encourage more responsibility on the part of the student and try to tackle head on any lack of intellectual challenge and engagement. Partly that’s at the root of many of these problems, the lack of realisation that being a full-time student requires a commensurate amount of effort. Perhaps we can use the Bologna/ECTS stuff to good effect by confirming to students that it means a minimum of 40 hours effor per week.

    The JISC plagiarism group in the UK has provided lots of useful techniques that help ‘engineer out’ plagiarism with different approaches to assessment and simple but effective ways of redesigning assignments as well as ways of teaching overtly referencing, etc. Jude Carroll’s book is a great resource and we provided a copy for every lecturer in our university a couple of years ago.

    In addition, simple suggestions include getting students to obtain (free) pre-written essays online and critiquing them! Educating about plagiarism and explaining why its an issue. Oh and never underestimate the power of showing in class an example of an ‘originality report’ from Turnitin of a plagiarised submission – the colour drains quickly from students’ cheeks when they see that!

    But as regards schools…I often share the negative, pessimistic comments people make about the Irish school leaving cert system, but what has been pleasantly surprising for me with my kids at primary school has been that they are all told to include references, weblinks etc in all their projects and get marks for putting them in. So at least some teachers are doing good work in this tricky area of information literacy!

  4. Wendymr Says:

    I absolutely agree with Jilly.

    I saw plagiarism shift, over my years in the system, from the occasional sentence or paragraph from a textbook to complete paragraphs and even essays lifted from online sources. And, other than the very rare case of a student under too much pressure succumbing to the ‘easy’ route, the culprits invariably the students already identified as poor attenders and unengaged. Disciplinary interviews confirmed the lack of engagement and the students’ unwillingness to do anything that required… you know, work.

    What is ironic is that, while the internet presents many more opportunities to plagiarise, it has also made detection so much easier. I never needed detection software. Thirty seconds with Google Advanced Search was generally enough to find the source. Sometimes it was essay mills, sometimes professional websites, and even sometimes online editions of textbooks (an open invitation to plagiarise, since all that’s needed is copy/paste) and online lecture notes from another university.

    If we want to reduce plagiarism, students have to see it as not worth the effort, and this will only be done through high detection rates and obvious penalties, while at the same time continuing to educate students in the value of good research and referencing.

  5. Mark Dowling Says:

    Just a quick note about the mention of references above.

    While doing the cognitive psychology part of my Oscail InfoTech course, I found transitioning from the methodologies used in writing undergraduate chemistry papers to the more rigid and citation-dense APA style quite challenging – unexpected because my prior expectations were that the course would be more technical and taught in line with the other elements of InfoTecg modules than a “pure” psychology course.

    Requiring references in school is not a guarantee that students will adapt smoothly to the norms of the discipline they choose.

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