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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