British academia encourages plagiarism

Plagiarismdegree_1This is a gentler version of the plagiarism saga that I previously posted, a version of which has now been published in the Times Higher Educational Supplement. The previous posts were taken down on advice from colleagues that it might threaten my university employment.

It doesn’t pay to be an honest student. Early penalties for plagiarism are currently so minor that if it’s a choice between handing in nothing and handing in 15 paragraphs plucked from Wikipedia and HowStuffWorks, then you’d be mad not to cheat. There’s a chance, of course, that you’ll get caught and get zero. But then you were going to get zero for handing in nothing anyway…

It is my opinion that by punishing the honest and being lenient towards the dishonest, the current academic culture (as encoded in the regulations of many UK universities) not only condones plagiarism but encourages it.

I recently started a crackdown on plagiarism in an undergraduate course where I teach engineers how to write and give presentations (not easy at the best of times). I taught first year students about why using essays from cheating websites was a mistake, and showed them how major changes in topic and writing style made it easy to tell where sources of text changed. I then gave the same class to graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) as part of their training.

The GTAs did well: they caught a total of 16 students out of about 160 in the class. Most of these had cut and pasted whole paragraphs (often several) from the Internet: we made printouts of these pages and highlighted the relevant text in both the essay and the source.

Then I had a brainstorm. I told the whole class that we had found that 10% of the essays were plagiarised and offered honest students (a relative term in this context!) a lesser punishment if they came forward to admit that they had cheated. I reminded them (though they’d been told in lectures) what cut-and-paste plagiarism was. Not only did several of those we’d already caught admit that they’d cheated, but so did ten other students who we hadn’t identified.

Here’s what was supposed to happen (and what I told the students). Those who came forward would get zero for their essay. However, they could avoid further punishment by rewriting it, and would also get feedback on their writing (the main point of the exercise).

Those who had not come forward were to get zero, plus only half the marks for their next two assignments for my course (a small module worth just 3% of the year). This punishment I determined from what I felt was a logical stance: that it had to be worse to be caught plagiarizing then to submit nothing at all. In addition, the offence might end up on their permanent record.

The department was great: when we presented the evidence concerning the students who hadn’t come forward, my boss passed in on to the college administration with the recommendations that we had agreed between us. He was confident that they would, as they had always done in the past, accept our plan, and was pleased that we’d made a big leap forward with this perennial issue.

What neither of us realized was that the college regulations (inherited from the University of London), seem to prohibit punishment outside reprimand and a penalty on the single piece of work that was plagiarized. I say seem to, because the wording is a little vague and open to interpretation. The department is currently figuring out what to do next. I’ve also asked the college to take a new look at their regulations.

But just fixing things here is not enough, the culture has to change. I attended a plagiarism seminar 2-3 years ago where we were encouraged to give moderate penalties, warnings, to use the event as an opportunity for teaching. This approach is fine if you buy the argument that, if students want to cheat during their higher education, they are only depriving themselves in the long run: we shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about them.

However, this just doesn’t wash: the honest students suffer because a vicious cycle is set up. We set work for them. Some do the work, some copy it from others. However, because a significant proportion of the class is cheating, they’re not learning. So the teaching does not appear to be effective. So we assign more work to try to get the information into the minds of the students. Now more of them are overwhelmed with the workload, more are likely to cheat, and so on. And those that are learning are likely getting worse grades than those that aren’t.

And let’s not forget that our degrees are devalued by students who come out with poor minds and good grades. A pool of university students becomes a lucky dip for employers: they have to hope they don’t get the one who took all the shortcuts.

If you doubt that plagiarism is practised by a large minority, come talk to my GTAs. Those who did their undergraduate degrees here will tell you about the cheating cartels (where large groups do a single piece of work collectively) or the groups that have high-graded laboratory reports going back years for students to copy from. Anyone involved with teaching can confirm there’s a serious problem here. It’s dealing with it that’s the problem.

I want to end my story with a shocking twist. Of the essays that were re-submitted because of admitted plagiarism, almost half had plagiarized again. Obviously, this means there is a deep problem in secondary education, and in our process of selecting university students, and in our academic culture.

I would argue that being more punitive towards plagiarisers and more lenient towards honest students will be—along with better detection—an important element in changing this culture.

Originally posted on Sunny Bains unedited.