Will plagiarism defeat us?

Nearly two years ago I wrote a post on this blog about plagiarism, arguing that if we were to contain it we would need to have a shared vision with students about the principles and objectives of learning. It was perhaps the post here that has received most attention: I was invited on two radio shows and one television programme on the strength of it, and am still regularly asked to express my views, write short articles, and so forth. A theme in all this attention was a sense of fear or outrage, based on the assumption that students would increasingly be able to cheat their way through examinations and, in particular, written assignments, and that academics and universities would be helpless in the face of this trend.

News from Scotland earlier this week might be seen as confirming the trend. According to media reports, over recent years the number of detected plagiarism cases in Scotland’s universities has soared. Between 2005 and 2010 they have detected 4,800 cases. So what are we to make of this? Does this tell us that cheating has become more common? It is certainly easier, as the internet provides anyone prepared to plagiarise with ready sources, including ‘services’ that will write essays for you. But is it happening, as the academics’ union UCU apparently suggested, because students are now under more pressure? Or is it that plagiarism detection software is making universities better at discovering cheating, thus increasing the number of known cases?

For those who might think that technology, which may be facilitating plagiarism, may also provide the solution, it may be time to think again. An article by Hannah Fearn in Times Higher Education points out that it is not necessarily difficult to use technology to evade detection; and in China it appears that a particular detection program may actually be almost as useful to those committing plagiarism as those fighting it.

For myself, I find it difficult to say whether plagiarism is on the rise, or whether we are simply more focused now on finding it. But in any case, it remains my view that the solution is not detection (or at least not just detection), but re-education. Cheating in effect means that students have not accepted the integrity of the educational principles of a university, a Faculty or a course, or maybe have not understood it. We need to continue to be vigilant, but we also need to develop the educational partnership with students that persuades them to respect the educational mission of what we are jointly doing. More easily said than done, I suppose, but worth the effort.

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15 Comments on “Will plagiarism defeat us?”

  1. Keith Says:

    Not just the students being caught out by technology, this article at the Monkey Cage [http://www.themonkeycage.org/2010/11/poli_sci_plagiarism_update.html] shows how academics can fall foul too. Also I think some students do not see what the issue is with using their own work for other modules (self-plagiarism?) especially since many academics base their careers on one good idea, even see them produce the same article in different journals but a few years apart. Outright cheating is obviously something different altogether and maybe in the short-term a few harsh penalties might help re-educate the students?

  2. jfryar Says:

    A number of years ago, we had students working in groups on a project to argue either for or against nuclear power in Ireland. One group submitted a report that I thought was suspicious on the basis of the language used; things like ‘henceforth’ and ‘concordantly’. This was just as the university was testing plagarism software so, instead, I took a whole sentence and did a google search. Sure enough I found about 70% of what had been submitted (spelling mistakes and all) had been lifted from a site but with minor alterations to sentence structure in an attempt to ‘put it in the groups own words’. I awarded the students exactly zero marks.

    The students obviously complained and the other lecturer in charge of the course and I had a lengthy discussion. This revolved around whether I should have penalised first-year students, whether they had learnt something about nuclear power from the exercise, and whether the changes to the text were sufficient to be classified as plagarism or research! It even got to the point where parents were showing up at the office door to complain. I lost the argument that day and the group was passed.

    I think plagarism can be quite a grey issue and academics won’t always agree without very clear guidelines of what does and does not constitute plagarism. After the incident we held a ‘seminar’ for the class groups to bring them through what we felt was acceptable and what wasn’t.

    So I think universities need very specific policies on plagarism rather than hand-waving generalites, and first-years need a specific lecture during induction to explain what is and isn’t acceptable.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    This story in the THE illustrates well the frustrations many academics face when plagiarism is detected http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=405406&sectioncode=26
    I agree that plagiarism can best be addressed from an educational perspective, such a perspective should also entail though a discussion of what is intended as intellectual property and copyright (this links up with the concept of authorship within western culture, of course). Contrary to what one might think plagiarism is not a recent problem brought about by digital technologies but part of our cultural history, as this latest publication convincingly argues: Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates
    by A Johns

  4. Martin Says:

    Cheating and plagiarism have always been around in universities. One hundred years ago the Registrar of Stanford University wrote “… and the freshman sees the game of cheating going on almost as a matter of course”.(Elliot 1911) Bowers (1964)found in a study of 5,422 North American undergraduate students in 1963 that 75% admitted to having committed at least one of 13 specific cheating acts. These ranged from copying a few sentences of material without footnoting in a paper (43%) to admitting to taking and exam for another student (1%). Consistently research from the Sixties onwards shows that 70% plus of students admit to cheating in some way on surveys.

    What’s happened in the last ten years is that academics have been given access to much more sophisticated tools for detecting plagiarism. These tools are far from perfect (see Debora Weber-Wulf’s work on this at http://plagiat.htw-berlin.de/start-en/), but it’s important to realise that most plagiarism is pretty basic, most plagiarists at University are not working that hard to do it, the ‘not working hard’ being a major reason to do it 🙂

    As well, it’s clear that a bit of a sea change in university’s and academic’s attitudes to cheating and plagiarism has taken place. In the late 90s when a colleague and I started doing research on cheating and plagiarism, a fair number of our colleagues couldn’t see the point of it, assuming that it was at quite low levels. I think that point of view is mostly gone now and universities and academics are far more pro-active about these issues than they were ten or twenty years ago.

    It’s also doubtful that technology has made cheating much easier, paper mills have existed for a long time in the USA especially and copying from a book is also pretty easy.

    We recently repeated a survey of our students which we originally ran in 2000. Despite all the doom and gloom, the results showed significant declines in acceptance of cheating practices and significant declines in cheating behaviours, still at problematic levels, but ten years, it’s a smaller problem, not a larger problem.

    Elliot, O.L., “University Standards and Student Activities,” The Popular Science Quarterly, vol. LXXIX, pp. 68-81, 1911.

    Bowers, W.J., “Student Dishonesty and its Control in College,” Columbia University, New York CRP-1672, December 1964 1964.

  5. I think the current emphasis on catching plagarism is too megative – I prefer to stress the postive side, and use plagarism detection software not to catch students but to show them how to reference properly so I can see if they have read effectively, if they have found apt points in the readings, intgrated those points in a useful synthesis and clearly delimited quoted materal from their own synthesis, so I can reward their handling of the ideas. If they have failed to reference properly, then I can’t see what they have contributed themselves, and cannot reward that.

    Obviously, I do penalise students who plagarise whole swathes of material, but I prefer to emphasise developing positive writing and analytic skills instead of treating every student as a potential criminal!

  6. anna notaro Says:

    Ferdinand, maybe it’s just my browser, however the China link in your post does not seem to work

  7. pennybridged Says:

    It seems to be that the key issues is that “students have not accepted the integrity of the educational principles”. What value do students place on their own education and learning if they are content to resort to cheating? What exactly do they think education is for – to cheat their way through it? With sharply rising numbers of school leavers attending third-level, we need to consider the motivations of those sitting in our classrooms, and we need to consider their vastly varying attitudes to the integrity of educational principles.

  8. Ernie Ball Says:

    I find that I am a much more thorough plagiarism detector than SafeAssign, the software plagiarism detector that UCD uses. I frequently find knock-down evidence of plagiarism in essays that SafeAssign says are clean. That technology needs a lot of work.

    Almost more disheartening than the plagiarism itself is how very lazy most plagiarists are even in their cheating! It’s bad enough that they are too lazy or distracted to do the work themselves. But they invariably all cheat in similar ways, using the same pages that a few keywords from the essay topic throw their way on Google. Or they all rush to the Sparknotes website (which doesn’t seem to be inventoried on Google for some reason). I usually find that for any large class, the few who cheat have all used the same internet sources. Since the rise of the internet, catching cheaters has become easier for me since none of them use printed works to cheat. Time was, when I had a suspicious-looking essay in hand, I’d have to go to the library and try to find the source (which, often, the student had made sure to have checked out). Now, between Google and Sparknotes, I’m confident I catch a much higher percentage.

    The way they plagiarise also shows a lack of perspicacity about their own abilities and about “other minds” not unrelated to the “Dunning-Kruger effect. They seem to think I couldn’t possibly know how to use Google effectively or that I’m incapable of detecting stylistic changes in a text or radical shifts in vocabulary.

    That said, we almost never accuse students of plagiarism, no matter how bald the facts of the case are. Instead we call the work “derivative” or “unoriginal.” This is because university management these days doesn’t care at all about truth or the merits of plagiarism cases: all they care about is avoiding litigation. There have been several cases, like that described by jfryar above, where the authorities have caved and allowed naked plagiarism detected by the lecturer to pass, sometimes even with honours.

    • Jilly Says:

      I agreed with everything until the final paragraph, Ernie. I (and my colleagues) most certainly do use the word plagiarism. If I find evidence of plagiarism, I give the student zero, and call them in for a very difficult (for them) meeting. In larger departments that I know of in several colleges, there are now Plagiarism Committees, where the student has to answer to a panel of academics. I have never known (directly or indirectly) of a proven case of plagiarism in my own university where the written anti-plagiarism policy wasn’t applied and supported by college management.

      I completely agree about how much easier it is to prove plagiarism thanks to the internet, however. Not to mention the frequent sense of disbelief at how it’s presented, as in ‘how f***** stupid do you think I am?!’

  9. Aidan Says:

    A very simple way of helping change this, is for questions and assignments to be phrased differently and better so that it does’t require a simple right and wrong answer (taken from a book) but an opinion based on the subject matter.

    I had an excellent lecturer in DIT who used this technique and all do,it was daunting doing exams and assignments like that,it certainly helped focus the mind and provide a better overall understanding of the subject matter.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      That doesn’t help. All of the questions for my essays and exams are of that nature: open ended questions with no clear right or wrong answer but for which different kinds of good arguments can be constructed. Students plagiarise just as much on these as on any other kind of question. They find something they think comes close to answering something like the question and they adapt it.

  10. Cormac Says:

    What has changed?
    The main thing that has really changed here is the move away from traditional, memory-based written exams to an emphasis on written assessments performed outside the classroom. Some of us this move has a fatal flaw – plagiarism – that can never be fully resolved

  11. Al Says:

    I presume the % remains constant.
    What academics deserve is a clear indication of the position of management on plagiarism.
    If it is all bluster and then no spine then why bother going to the hassle….

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