Plagiarism

At about this time of year, in universities all over the world, academics are marking essays and grading exams. They are also discovering that large numbers of students are plagiarising the work of others, mostly taking material directly from web sites and passing it off as their own. This is a problem that has been growing for several years now, but based on my own contact with students and the experiences of British academics I know, I believe it’s becoming critical. I’ve been giving some thought as to why so many students choose to cheat and have come to the conclusion that this goes way beyond the fact that it is easy and carries relatively low penalties. This is the leading edge of a revolution that the universities will have to embrace or find themselves humiliated and sidelined. Here are a few things I think could be done to address the issue, in no particular order:

1. Academics need an incentive. Catching plagiarists takes a long time, is very boring, and does nothing for your career. It’s easier just to ignore it and get on with work you’d prefer to be doing. I suspect a lot of plagiarism goes undetected for just this reason. Worse still, if you’re a part-time university teacher you will receive little or no payment for marking essays in the first place, so there is a strong temptation just to forget about plagiarism and pass the problem on. Universities rely far too heavily on goodwill and the plagiarists know it.

2. Penalties are too weak. Given that plagiarism isn’t always easy to detect, those plagiarists who are detected should be heavily penalised. More often than not plagiarised essays get a mark of zero, but plagiarists are often allowed to resubmit the work or retake an exam and can get decent grades in the end. Very few fail the module for which plagiarism was detected but even if they did they could still get a respectable degree. In some universities plagiarism that is detected after the marks have been agreed can not be revisited, so it is theoretically possible for a student to plagiarise all of year 2, get caught for one essay in year 3, have the year 2 plagiarism uncovered and still get a first class degree. This is well known and plagiarists are exploiting it; they are not all stupid.

3. Technology is not the enemy. The Web has made cheating easy and it has also made it easier to detect if humans can find the will, and the time, to use it. Plagiarism detection software and university subscriptions to the “essays for sale” websites need to be deployed more widely. In this respect the problem is a human one, not technological.

4. The academic model has changed, but many academics haven’t noticed. The Web has seen the rise of new ways of collaborating and publishing, new ways of licensing, and new ways of thinking about the ownership of intellectual works. It used to be the case that information was stored in university libraries and academics were the ones who had control over it. The skill of “scholarship” was the ability to find, organise, and recall detailed information at will and it is still a major part of what is taught in universities. In reality all scholarship requires is time and patience, something academics used to have in large amounts. But search engines have taken most of the labour out of it. Information no longer has value–there is a glut–and many plagiarists are simply reacting to this new market. Anyone can be an academic these days–patients research their own diseases, enthusiasts produce polished websites about their favourite subject, or contribute to an encyclopedia–what really counts is informed interpretation. All the plagiarists are doing is collecting data, like the journeyman academics of the past, but fail to see the difference between data collection, attribution, and ownership.

5. Assessment methods invite plagiarism. In the humanities at least, but in other areas too, assessment is done largely by exam and by assessed essay. There are technological threats to the sanctity of the exam room of course, but the assessed essay is the place where most of the malpractice takes place. Reducing the value of assessed essays is one way round the problem, but universities need to be more imaginative than that, thinking up new ways of testing their students on a regular basis. I’d like to see them embrace the new order, perhaps allowing students to submit reading diaries in the form of blogs, which could be written over a period of time and would be available to the public–and to peer review–or as websites; these could be hosted by universities for years after the event and in many cases could become a useful resource. Online publishing of assessments means that over time many eyes could look them over and the chances of getting caught even long after the event are quite high–of course this assumes a degree obtained by deception could then be taken away. Universities could look to what happened here, where a journalist did what many students are doing: he borrowed material straight from wikipedia and other websites. Online assessment methods wouldn’t eliminate plagiarism, but they might make it easier to spot, especially for software, as well as giving students more of a stake in the work they were submitting–everyone would know whose work it was.

I believe there are two main things to take from all this. Firstly that students need to feel they have a stake in the work they are doing, and secondly that plagiarism needs to have consequences, be it a failed year, a failed degree, or simply the humiliation of being shown up as a fool on a public website. As things stand academia risks its own humiliation: students are already taking academics for fools.

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