Is plagiarism in HE increasing? Many lecturers think so, and some recent research seems to bear out their fears. The burgeoning of the internet—and its bumper crop of ‘paper mills’ churning out thousands of essays ready for downloading—is widely felt to be to blame, though there are many other factors too: the shift in assessment practice away from unseen exams; student anxiety about the conventions of academic writing; the increased importance of getting good grades; the growth in student numbers; pressures on students in part-time employment. The temptation to plagiarise is sometimes the panicky result of a student’s problematic transition from schoolwork to the academic essay—the product of alienating social forces rather than original sin. Plagiarism is often committed at the end of the assessment process, near the deadline, by students who are working under extreme stress or who lack confidence and are finding it difficult to establish their own critical voices. Factors such as lack of confidence, unfamiliarity with the conventions of the discourse being deployed, and lack of ‘ownership’ help to foster derivative, and potentially plagiaristic, strategies for writing.
Electronic detection systems, such as the Turnitin programme, provide one way forward. As a rule, though, prevention is better than cure. One way to circumvent the problem is through creative assessment design. Essays are one of the easiest types of assignment to plagiarise (from printed sources, other students or the web). Setting smaller-scale, more narrowly-focused tasks – and finding interesting ways of teaching student writing skills – can be good ways both to build student commitment to a course and to make plagiarism harder. Giving students carefully considered feedback is also essential.
Ensuring that students understand what plagiarism is and how it can be avoided is another way to head off the problem at the pass. A section in a department’s course handbook is unlikely to be enough: ideally, a coalition of other methods (lectures, compulsory online activities, activities in seminars) should be used to drive the message home. The websites listed in our Additional Reference section provide lecturers with a wealth of ideas—and an embarrasssment of starting points. On a separate page, you will find a list of questions designed to form the basis for a departmental plagiarism review.
Image left: Copy-paste courtesy of Tim Bartel on Flickr