Posted tagged ‘plagiarism’

Still struggling with plagiarism

September 10, 2011

Some time in the mid-1980s, when I was a lecturer in Dublin, I came across an essay I was marking that had all the hallmarks of plagiarism: the paper drifted between inarticulate banalities and then, suddenly, beautiful writing with intelligent analysis. Its referencing was suspect. And its passionate argument for a particular legal reform did not sit easily with the views of this student as normally expressed in class.

Anyway, I called in the student and told him that I suspected plagiarism and asked him to comment. Almost immediately he admitted the offence, and then proceeded to tell me how he had gone about it. In order to find sources with which I might be less familiar, he had travelled to a university library in Canada (where he had friends), and there he looked for materials that were in more obscure books and articles; then he had taken passages from different works to hide his tracks.

At this point I asked him whether it wouldn’t have been much simpler for him just to do the work properly, rather than take all this immense trouble. He agreed that this was a reasonable question; but he then added that he had learned much from the materials he had plagiarised, and that they had broadened his outlook.

Of course the opportunities for plagiarism have grown exponentially as people got access to the internet and its vast resources. But the tools for detecting plagiarism have also become more powerful. Chief of these is the program Turnitin, which compares submitted text with a huge databank of materials and then offers a conclusion as to whether there has been plagiarism. But as this product became more and more effective, its developers offered a rather different product for students: the program WriteCheck advises them as to whether their essay or assignment may be breaking the plagiarism rules. This has prompted outrage on the part of at least some academics.

I wonder sometimes whether we are allowing our fears of plagiarism to overwhelm us. Clearly plagiarism is wrong, but it is not life-threatening. Students who plagiarise may be hiding the tracks of their inattentiveness or, occasionally, modest talents; but they will have spent at least a little while opening their minds to the materials they are abusing. Turnitin has given academics some means of monitoring what is going on, but now WriteCheck is accused, by some, as an insurance policy for students against the risk of plagiarism detection.

I strongly doubt that our world will collapse as a consequence of this. And while it is important that students understand that plagiarism is not acceptable, we should not become paranoid about it. There are other things that should have a better claim to our attention.

Academic plagiarism and the wider world

February 24, 2011

Academics are used to discussions about the nature and implications of plagiarism, both on the part of students and occasionally by staff. But just occasionally plagiarism that had its origins in academic exercises creates waves in the wider world. This week has provided a major example. The German Defence Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, has had to give up his doctoral title in the face of allegations that he used but did not credit some of the sources in his PhD thesis. The thesis in question was submitted in 2006 and was later published in 2009. The actual extent of the alleged plagiarism is small in the overall context of a 1,000 page work, but as he could not refute the allegations he was forced to hand back his doctorate. For now at least, he will retain his government post, but he may find that his career has been seriously affected.

His is not the first non-academic career to have been hit by allegations of academic plagiarism. Last year a candidate for the post of Governor in Maine was seriously affected by allegations of plagiarism, which prompted him to fire on of his own staffers who, he said, was responsible for providing the allegedly copied materials.

Within the university sector an Australian vice-chancellor, David Robinson, had to resign a few years ago when the media picked up cases of plagiarism on his part that had been established some years earlier.

As universities often struggle with plagiarism by students, it may be worth reminding them that when they are found to have plagiarised this has the potential to leave a trail that can seriously damage them later in their professional lives. It is a matter to be taken seriously.

Will plagiarism defeat us?

January 21, 2011

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.

A model programme?

December 20, 2010

A higher education story getting some air time in Ireland concerns a student in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) who, it is alleged, was guilty of plagiarism in that he had improperly got hold of and used in an assignment an ‘instructor’s manual’ for his programme. This latter document was available to lecturers only.

This particular incident has raised all sorts of issues about plagiarism, about the institute’s security systems, about its willingness in the first instance to ignore the plagiarism and allow the student to proceed, and so forth. There are probably all sorts of internal issues at work there, and I don’t wish to comment on any of this here.

But one thing did catch my eye. According to a report in the Galway City Tribune, this is what happened:

‘The student obtained a copy of the instructor’s manual used by lecturers only, which provides model answers to questions contained in continuous assignments handed out as part of a post-graduate degree course, and used this nefariously-obtained material in a case study presentation.’

The bit I find tricky here is the reference to ‘model answers’. I don’t actually know what the programme was, though it appears to be in the institute’s business school. But on the whole I have a real problem with the idea that, at third level, we should be working with ‘model answers’. Of course I should withhold judgement, because perhaps the answers were statistical or the like; but overall I would expect students to be encouraged to open their minds and to aim for originality, rather than produce answers anticipated or prescribed by those designing the programme. But perhaps I am missing something. I may pursue this angle of the story a little further.

Would you buy a used essay from this man?

August 30, 2009

In response to my recent post Returning, one person attempted to submit the following comment:

It’s not so simply to bring a great custom essays, especially if you are intent. I recommend you to find buy a custom essay and to be devoid from discredit that your work will be done by essay writers.

Well obviously this is spam, which is why you don’t see the comment in its intended place, and why I am not giving you the link submitted with it. But what struck me was that if I were trying to flog some plagiarism materials, I’d have a go at advertising this in a reasonably literate and coherent way. However, being a naturally curious person, I followed the link and was gratified to learn that the service they offer – i.e. that they’ll write your essay for you, though no doubt it won’t have the look and feel of Shakespeare about it – is completely and absolutely legit:

100% Plagiarism FREE. Your reputation is also our reputation. We are building our company on a quality and understand the harm of plagiarism. Protecting your academic life is something we are worry about.

Well, since they are worry about my reputation, I’m afraid I cannot resist this. I am going to commission an essay from them. They say they can deliver in just 12 hours at $24 per page. I’m afraid I’m going for the cheapo 7-day option, which comes in at $11 per page. So I’m going to splash out for, say 4 pages. I’d be grateful for any suggestions as to a good topic. The resulting essay will be published here. Fully credited.

Guest blog: Cut and paste?

July 27, 2009

Cut and Paste?
by Dr Perry Share, Head of Department of Humanities at the Institute of Technology, Sligo


I was looking back at two earlier posts in this blog in April and July of this year, and was reflecting on how they relate relate to a topic that I have had a passing interest in (both intellectual and administrative) – that of plagiarism. Or, as I prefer to think of it, for reasons that will become apparent below, intertextuality.

Over the last year there was something of a mini-rash of alleged plagiarism cases at my institution. These were difficult to deal with, partly because the institution in question, like most of its counterparts in Ireland, does not have a well thought-through set of policies and procedures, which makes it rather exposed to even the idea of legal challenges; but also because any consensus that may have existed in relation to what plagiarism might be has become increasingly fragile in a world that is saturated with practices of re-use and re-purposing of intellectual property. It is no longer clear as to what it means to re-use another’s material and whether this is a good or a bad thing.

We live in a world where the reuse of written materials is ubiquitous, widely rewarded, sometimes celebrated and increasingly expected. Exhibit A is of course the Internet, where a Google search of any distinctive phrase will allow you the opportunity to trace its use and reuse through thousands if not millions of sites, though it may well be impossible to track down the original iteration. Exhibit B is the mass media, where pop music, popular film, fashion, advertising, commercial fiction, magazines routinely recycle and reuse concepts, phrases, images and storylines. Exhibit C is the world of routine administration, business and – yes – academia, where numerous documents, from contracts to safety statements to business plans to research funding applications are (re-) constructed unapologetically from commercially-available templates or, more often, from whatever worked before for somebody else.

Many academics and nearly all students have grown up in a world where the rules of intellectual property have been changing at a rapid pace. Most students live in a semiotic universe defined by the cut-and-paste culture of Bebo, YouTube, Photoshop and Facebook. They either download their music, images, TV shows and films illegally, or at least know people who do. They wear T-shirts that ironically (or unironically) reuse and recycle corporate logos and cultural imagery from the Mona Lisa to the GAA. They find most of their information in Wikipedia and Google Scholar and – quelle surprise! – put this into their essays and projects.

Just like the music and film industries, the academic system struggles to cope with this new culture of the copy. One way is to threaten stringent penalties for the ‘crime’ or ‘fraud’ of plagiarism, often so draconian that they are rarely if ever implemented. A second is to try to train students in the arcane rules and rituals of referencing and attribution – and of course the mastering of such techniques is a rite of passage of the successful scholar. A third approach is to seek a technological fix in turnitin.com – the ‘anti-plagiarism’ software that will allow for detection of the least sophisticated copiers. All of these approaches will of course have some ‘success’ in preventing students from copying material, or at least in making them feel guilty (or terrified, or confused) about it.

But what rarely happens is a fundamental questioning of why the culture of the copy is a problem in the first place. It is clear that without borrowing, cross-referencing, mimicry and copying – or intertextuality to give it a technical term – culture just could not exist. That which is completely original is of course uniquely unintelligible. In academia perhaps more than anywhere it is necessary to make products that are very similar to what has gone before – to show that you are really part of the academic community.

But in an age of ‘free culture’, ‘creative commons’, sampling, remixing, open-source, and on-line collaborative working, why do we continue to insist on the Romantic notions of ‘originality’ and individualistic intellectual production? Are there not ways that our teaching and learning practices can be remodelled to encourage genuine collaborative working, the constructive use and reuse of existing material, and the astute assessment of how to use templates, models and processes?

If the central theme of contemporary culture is the copy, how do we serve students by constantly urging them to come up with something ‘original’, while pretending that we are going to punish them if they don’t? Wouldn’t it be a lot better to help them to deal with the world as it really is?

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.