Posted tagged ‘cheating’

The age of plagiarism?

April 5, 2009

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.