Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Self-plagiarism, recycling credit and audience expectations

This year I have had a few situations with students 'recycling' work from other assignments. This was not really academic dishonesty: the students were honest about doing it. They just didn't realise that what double-dipping was actually academically dishonesty. 

What happened was that students had a small, earlier assignment in a coaching course which they felt related well to a portion of a larger, later assignment on a leadership course. Because the institutes I work for use TurnItIn, this recycling showed up in similarity scores of 15% and upwards, for a third of the class. News had spread amongst the students that recycling the earlier assessment would save them those most precious of student commodities: effort and time. 

Needless to say, when I reviewed the similarity scores, the numbers were a shock. We allow similarity scores - in the institutions I teach for - to be in single digits only. Double digits and upwards, the work is penalised at the face value of the similarity score (until we get to 25%, at which time it becomes an issue for the school manager to have a meeting with the student about). A high score is not the lecturers' job to investigate: it is the students' responsibility to advise a high score to their lecturer, and to explain why the score is high (then the student has 'managed' their score). However, the students all knew why it was high - they had recycled their own work - and none of them advised me.

With so many students with high similarity scores, instead of penalising everyone, I (a) sampled the similarity score reports to see if there was a pattern, then (b) went back to the students with an email, and an opportunity to learn, correct, and resubmit. Later I emailed them the following summary to close the incident: 
When we submit work to TurnItIn, each of us must manage our similarity score. We each need to allow enough time to submit our work, check our score, then amend our work so that our score is below 10%. We read the help files for tips on how to write academically. If we cannot get our score below 10%, we must email our lecturer and advise why we cannot get our score lower. If we don't do that, then we know our work will be penalised at the face value of the score. 

In our portfolio assessment, similarity scores were high because there were three things we didn't properly consider - or didn't know - before submitting:
  1. Firstly, resubmitting the same work without citing ourselves what is known as 'self-plagiarism'. TurnItIn talks about this here and here (2020a, 2020b). We can reuse our work, but we must cite ourselves, following all the usual APA citation and referencing rules: i.e. no more than 50 words per citation; use double quote marks to indicate it is a self quote; and provide the reader with a map back to the source (i.e, author, date, title, and source). If we have submitted our original work online, we simply provide the URL for where the work was uploaded to as our source. 
  2. Secondly, there is the issue of 'recycling' credit. If we have turned in work for credit on one course, we cannot recycle it to get credit on another course. Otherwise we could pirate our own work again and again and do - over-exaggeration coming here! - 180 credits instead of 360 credits to earn our degree. This is contained in institutional policy (in NMIT's case, in an Academic Integrity and Academic Misconduct Policy which students are directed to from the Student Charter). NMIT's policy says that it is considered to be academic misconduct if we submit "work for summative assessment which has previously been submitted elsewhere, without the prior permission of the Curriculum Manager or delegate" (NMIT, 2019, p. 2).
  3. Thirdly, is our audience's expectations. Regardless of who our audience is, they are expecting the work we provide to be our own, original, and created to answer the question at hand (think Developer Bob). We have a psychological contract to uphold with our audience, along with our reputation for honesty. If we want to reuse ideas developed in previous work, what we can do is to rewrite those ideas, and to bend them to suit the new use that we are going to put them to. If we have particularly good elements that suit, then we must quote them in APA as per the first point. 
We know it now though, and we won't make the same mistake again. 
Since striking this problem, I have created "Help" posts on all my courses covering these points, so that students are now quite clear that while they cannot reuse the same material they have submitted for credit on past papers, they are very welcome to reuse ideas. You must cite them, honouring the author - ourselves - just as we would normally do. 

This is obviously preying on my mind, as I have written about this more than once (here)! 


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