Student Plagiarism

According to a story in  today’s Herald, plagiarism is rife at universities. Harriet Alexander reports that

It is difficult to establish a total number of plagiarism cases across all universities because collection methods vary. But a conservative estimate is 3336 cases between Sydney, Macquarie, UTS, the University of Western Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong, Charles Sturt and Southern Cross.

Is  this  meant to seem like a lot? In fact the figure is almost meaningless, except as a measure of the time taken up on the official committees investigating those cases that are actually prosecuted.

I just marked a batch of essays by first and second year business students. Despite every preventative measure   lucid referencing guidelines on the course web page, a compulsory tutorial devoted to referencing and plagiarism, frequent and terrifying threats in lectures, a detailed declaration on the cover sheet (students had to type this out themselves) still eight out of eighty essays contained serious plagiarism. By this I mean that at least one paragraph was cut and pasted from an unacknowledged web site. (I’m leaving out the thirty or so others  whose authors  copied whole sentences from  the recommended readings without quotation marks.) If ten percent in an undergraduate course is the low end, we can safely assume that the 3336 ‘reported’ cases are a drop in an ocean of tens of thousands.

Why is there so much unreported plagiarism? In some cases the academic reading the essay doesn’t notice. This is highly likely  if he’s an inexperienced, casual tutor, and  not a native speaker.  And even if he suspects, he might not care. If he cares, he might still decide that it’s too time-consuming to investigate.

Actually,  checking less arduous  than it used to be. In the days when students used books, it could be infernally difficult to track down where something came from. But nowadays students at least in my area get most of their material from the internet. Just as this facility, along with the electronic clipboard, makes it easy and tempting to plagiarise, it also reduces to seconds the amount of time required to detect the plagiarism. It’s easiest when the essays are submitted electronically you just copy the slick sounding phrase or obscure fact from the essay into Google, and instantly the mysterious source article is on your screen. Some universities also subscribe to detection software such as Turnitiin, which I haven’t tried.

In any case, even when the academic discovers it he may not report it. I usually let them submit it again if they own up. Otherwise, there’s an official misconduct procedure that usually results in a zero mark for the essay, but even those cases rarely make it into any official statistics.

The bottom line is that rife is an  understatement. And plagiarism is worse than rife because  the incentives are strong, and the expected cost low, as it mostly goes undetected and unpunished. Slackness on the part of  some academics creates a negative externality for the ones  who choose to police it, in the form of  more time spent in detection and cross-examination.

I persist because I think essay  assignments develop valuable analytical and writing skills. If a culture evolves in which cutting and pasting without quotes is  legitimate  as long as there’s  a citation, then  students won’t bother writing essays themselves, so they won’t learn to write. At the same time they’ll become progressively  bolder  in cutting and pasting without citations – which  will have become a tedious formality – so we won’t be able to tell if the author has made any contribution at all.

Or am I just a dinosaur? Maybe writing is old hat.  Or rather, a job  for specialists, and  the rest of the graduate population only needs to know how to  gather  patches of relevant text  and  stitch them together –  reading them only if absolutely necessary.      

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Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

The university where I teach trialled one of the anti-plagiarism software packages last year (can’t remember the name of it now). I participated in the trial, requiring students to submit their assignments electronically via the trial system. Unfortunately it proved worse than useless. It not only identified unfootnoted passages from published works as plagiarism, but also any quote (even when attributed) that had already been used by another student who had submitted an essay on the same topic. Since students very commonly choose at least some of the same quotes, the system generated large numbers of false positives. The time wasted in eliminating false positives outweighed any benefits the system might otherwise have delivered in automated checking.

I’ve reverted to using Google where I detect a suspiciously lucidly expressed passage from an otherwise dubiously literate student, and I require all students to submit essays electronically. I still think Google is the quickest and most reliable tool (and will hopefully improve further as Google Scholar achieves broader coverage).

Like you James, I usually allow students to resubmit if they confess and the quantum of plagiarism is only a paragraph or so. However I’ve had two cases in the last 2 years where the quantum was much greater; in both cases the majority of a 3000 word essay (word for word unacknowledged copying and pasting). In both cases I laid a formal complaint and pursued the required formal process and in both cases the student was failed in the subject as a whole. Law students also run the additional risk that they might conceivably be denied admission as a practitioner on character/honesty grounds if the plagiarism is sufficiently serious.

You may well be right that lots of academics don’t bother for whatever reason, but I know that at least 2 other law academics at

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

Ken and James,

I am glad to hear that you have had success in pursuing the boldest cases of plagiarism. Unfortunately, that has not been my experience. It is very difficult to convict a student because of the legalism that had crept into the university appeals procedures. In one recent case I am aware of, not only was a clearly guilty student acquitted on a technicality but the lecturer was censured by his department for the breach of protocol

Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
15 years ago

Keep up the good work James and Ken, and everyone who is holding the line!

Yobbo
Yobbo
15 years ago

Since the a lot of degrees now are just a rubber-stamp to get an office job, plagiarism should be encouraged.

Law students should obviously be judged harder, because reasoning and analysis are a central part of their occupation, but since the average business degree is worth very little and anyone who wants to be taken seriously has to do an MBA, I don’t really think holding those undergrads up to the standards of 30 years ago is fair or efficient.

That said, every assignment I’ve been given in my degree I could write from the top of my head with no references, because they are of such a low level of difficulty that a high-school kid could get a credit pass in them.

This gets me stern words and lost marks from most tutors for “not enough references”, so I have learned to include at least 5 irrelevant quotes just so I have the minimum number of expected footnotes.

meika
15 years ago

I agree with Yobbo, and drugs in sport should be mandatory.

Seriously though, In all that official effort to warn, inform, and scare is there any effort made to tell students they are actually there to’ learn to write’.

Is is that so obvious that this is never mentioned.

Some basic info how people learn in different ways would be good too.

meika
15 years ago

ps I never really ‘understood’ why some writers name was important to some idea until I was 30. I though it was the idea that was important. Now I ‘know’ it is who you know, not what you know.

That’s why you have to ‘reference’ Yobbo, though no one tells you why.

It must also be too obvious.

All knowledge is grooming, gossip and socially constructed.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

meika

You’re right (in part at least), but there’s a less cynical though more prosaic way to put it. It really is the idea that’s important, but how do we assess the reliability of an idea (unless one really does think there are just lots of different narratives)? A reader can make these assessments more effectively with the help of a footnote that tells her whether an economics proposition is sourced from (say) John Quiggin or Graeme Bird. It’s certainly a signifier that knowledge is indeed socially constructed, as is the institution of peer review in academia. But in the absence of the time and energy to investigate fully the provenance of every idea we hear or read, how else can we discriminate between probable truth and half-baked nonsense?

Robert
Robert
15 years ago

how else can we discriminate between probable truth and half-baked nonsense?

That’s up to you. As it is to everyone else. And that is the value of ideas – that among other things they fire people up. As it is the value of people – that their opinion is of value when expressed (even if to highlight or affirm something other than expressed).

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
15 years ago

Ken: Thanks for the information about the anti-plagiarism software. Previously my misgiving about it was that markers who don’t care wouldn’t bother using it anyway. But you’ve provided grounds to doubt that it’s very useful even for the conscientious amongst us.

Jacques: I had a similar experience in high school – accused in front of the whole class. If you’re reading this, Miss Birmingham, I haven’t forgotten.

Sam: please tell me where you did your degree, so I can make sure my kids don’t enrol there.

Meike: Your arguments seem to be about citation in general rather than in assessed student assignments. Would you be happy if architecture students could earn their degrees by submitting designs they downloaded from the net?

Francis X Holden
15 years ago

mmh Parish have you ever seen John Quiggin and Graeme Bird is the room together at the same time?

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
15 years ago

An compelling idea for a novel, FX: a good title might be The Strange Case of Professor Quiggin and Mr Bird.

meika
15 years ago

Would you be happy if architecture students could earn their degrees by submitting designs they downloaded from the net?

James

only if I can print it out in my back yard so I can tweak it…

(I was answering yobbo)

meika
15 years ago

Would you be happy if architecture students could earn their degrees by submitting designs they downloaded from the net?

James

only if I can print their designs out in my back yard so I can tweak it too… it would depend on the license they ascribe to their work

(I was answering yobbo)

meika
15 years ago

damn

Grace Kelly
15 years ago

The other issue with plagiarism software is one of intellectual property for students. While I know that technically the university owns the IP for student work, when students submit the essay it goes in to the TurnItIn database, where it stays forever. TurnItIn then markets itself as having one of the biggest databases of student work in the world (it is an American company), thereby making profit off the back of students’ work, without any benefit to the student.

There is also a privacy issue for Australian students in that all their details are kept in a data storage facility in the United States, subjecting the information from student essays to a different legal and regulatory framework.

Apart from all of that, it is pretty useless at actually detecting plagiarism, particularly in undergraduate courses where essays are basically glorified literature reviews anyway. Of course there’s going to be significant overlap of sources. What it doesn’t detect are people who are deliberately plagiarising, but have good enough language skills to paraphrase.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Grace, I guess the privacy issue is of some weight. I’m not too fussed about the IP argument. They might store the whole essay, but it’s not to use the IP in anything but the most tangential way. Looks like fair use to me.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

James

I’m pretty sure that the system we trialled wasn’t Turnitin (which you linked). Browsing at the PR material for Turnitin, I see they claim “New features exclusive to Turnitin include the ability to exclude quoted and bibliographic material from a search”. That was the major drawback with the system I tested, so if Turnitin overcomes it then it may well be worthwhile. After I finish marking I’ll make some overtures and see if we can get a trial of Turnitin.

Of course, the problem with “intuitive” Google searching where one detects obviously suspicious style changes in an essay is that the technique almost certainly overlooks smarter cheats who are clever enough to be capable of roughly matching the style and vocabulary of copied sources.

Yobbo
Yobbo
15 years ago

“the technique almost certainly overlooks smarter cheats”

So what’s the problem? If they are smart enough to cheat like that so even a university professor can’t tell, then they are probably smart enough to do whatever job their degree is going to be for. Western Society isn’t going to collapse under their fraud.

meika
15 years ago

also, plagiarists are least likely to upset the boat and so, no doubt, Human resources people have cheats down as excellent employees, just after dupes and whores

cheaters know how the world works, there is no reward in being honest, you’ll just end up on the dole as an unrealistic nun or monk without the frock

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

There are other alternatives Meika.

Mark McCrohon
15 years ago

I have developed an Australian made plagiarism detection tool called DOC Cop which is on the web at: http://www.doccop.com

Please check it out – I am struggling to get Australian universities to take any notice – however I am having success with it overseas.

It is very fast!