Plagiarism in education

It’s often said that if you steal from one person’s work, it’s plagiarism, but if you steal from lots of people it’s “research”. Very droll, but plagiarism is a serious business. As well as being potentially economically damaging to the victim, it is demeaning for the perpetrator – although, like all thieves, they probably don’t realise it.
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Is Plagiarism Really a Problem?

I don’t often get annoyed when I read the newspaper these days –- well, not more than once per page anyway – but an article in today’s Guardian entitled “Internet plagiarism rising in schools”, with the subheading “Half of university students also prepared to submit essays bought off internet, according to research”, really wound me up. This for several reasons.

Firstly, the research was carried out by a researcher from the University of Manchester, and the results will be presented at a conference called The Plagiarism Conference sponsored by, amongst others, a company called nLearning, which supplies plagiarism-detecting software. Now come on: how likely is it that they would sponsor a conference in which someone comes along and say “Hey! Our research shows that you really don’t need to be buying plagiarism-busting aplications!”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that the research was fabricated or misreported, or that anyone has said or done anything which is underhand. The fact is that there is a tendency for research results to reflect the views or principles of the researcher or organisation involved.

I first heard about this phenomenon when I was studying Psychology at uni. It was an option I took in my first year, and in one of our experiments we looked at something called the Experimenter Effect. It was fascinating really. Paired off, we students were given the role of either experimenter or subject, and then each experimenter was given an instruction sheet to read to our subject, explaining the nature of the task he or she would be doing. The sheet included the directive to read out the instructions exactly as they were set out, apart from the last paragraph. That final paragraph told me that the task was impossible. What I didn’t know at the time was that other experimenters’ final paragraph said the precise opposite, that the task was as easy as falling off a log.

Despite, as we all thought, carrying out our instructions to the letter, and reading the sheet out exactly as it was written, ie with no diversion from the text or even giving our words a particular nuance, those of us who were told the task was impossible witnessed our subjects flailing and failing abysmally, whilst our more optimistic colleagues saw their subjects succeed with glee.

The same sort of thing was discovered many years ago in the field of Economics, in which it was found that the (to all intents and purposes objective) research of left-wing think tanks tended to reveal things like, for example, the official rate of unemployment was an understatement of the true figure, whilst their right-wing counterparts’ research demonstrated errors in the opposite direction. There was no suggestion that anyone was being economical with the truth.

It seems to me, therefore, that the results of research are coloured by hidden influences such as expectations, underlying methodology, the type of questions asked, and so on. I don’t think truly objective research is possible, and I would even apply that “law” to my own humble efforts. For example, it is hardly surprising that when I set out to find out how teachers were using Web 2.0 applications in their classrooms, and what the outcomes were for students, I discovered that teachers who use blogging and so on in their lessons universally report that it had a profoundly positive effect on their students’ learning. (Read all about in the Amazing Web 2.0 Projects Book, which is not only stupendous, but also free!)

Bottom line: I tend to take all research results, especially the ones I read about in newspapers, with a pinch of salt. And I say "especially" because I find it very depressing that stories like this seem always to be reported without any critical faculty whatsoever being exercised. Like those stories that pop up every so often in which someone starts ranting that kids don't know how to use apostrophes these days, a clear indication if ever there was one of the wholesale failure of teachers, schools and society in general -- and it is mentioned, almost in passing, that the ranter has just published "Apostrophes for Dummies". I know journalists are busy people, with deadlines and stuff, but surely they could at least raise an eyebrow?

Secondly, I refuse to believe that 50% of university students are cheats or potential cheats.

Thirdly, what exactly has changed over the last however many years apart from, perhaps, the ease with which one can buy essays? I recall a “student” I was put in contact with through a private tuition agency offering to pay me three times the hourly rate to write an essay he could copy and pass off as his own. I refused, and he was so upset and angry that he complained to the agency about me, telling them that I had made the offer to him! That was 25 years ago. As far as I can see, the difference is that now he would go to a website and anonymously purchase an essay written anonymously by someone who has basically abandoned all pretence of being professional or ethical.

Fourthly, how come their tutors need software to tell them if their students are cheating? If you read your students’ essays over the year, and listen to them debating in seminars, how could you fail to notice if their writing suddenly used different language, different sentence structures or just seemed different?

Well, maybe university tutors deal with hundreds of (to them) faceless students these days. But schools?  I mean, why should any school need a computer to tell that their kids are “cheating”?

And are they even cheating? There’s an old maxim that if you steal from one writer it’s called plagiarism, but if you steal from lots of writers it’s called research. Do youngsters actually know the difference between plagiarism and research unless they’re taught?

This is nothing new either. In my very first teaching job, when I taught Economics, I set an essay to answer the question, “What are the causes of unemployment?”. When I had marked the essays I gave the class feedback as follows:

That essay you did for me was tackled really well. The only thing I would say, though, to save us all a lot of a bother next time, is that instead of copying several pages straight out of a textbook, just hand me in a sheet of paper with your name on, together with the title of the textbook you’d like to copy from, and the relevant page numbers, and I’ll mark the book instead.

So how did I know thay’d copied large swathes of textbooks? First of all, I possessed all the main textbooks and knew them quite well. I knew the way their authors expressed things. But more importantly, I knew my students, so when the lad who would usually come out with such gems as “My granddad wouldn’t of got any work if he hadn’t gone out looking for it” handed in an essay which was full of sentences like “Indeed, we can surmise from observation of the effects of tax incentives on industry in regional development areas …”, something told me that he may not have written it all by himself.

You don’t need technology to detect plagiarism, cheating, copying or whatever you wish to call it. What you need is teachers who know their students, and common sense – and time by the powers-that-be for teachers to get to know their students, and freedom to trust and rely on their own professional judgement (because that, when it becomes subconscious, is actually “common sense”).

Moreover, if students really are cheating, we need to ask ourselves some questions, such as:

  • Are they really cheating, or have they simply not understood that that isn’t real research, or don’t have the literary skills to summarise or reword passages they read in articles and books?
  • If it turns out that they are cheating, is that because we seem to be living in a society in which it increasingly appears to be the case that the end is regarded as justifying the means?

If there is any truth in that latter suggestion, perhaps we would agree with Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.”