Monday, 14 June 2021

The hoofbeats of plagiarism

While plagiarism is a very serious academic issue, the image that accompanied a previous post (here; RetractionWatch, 2013) made me laugh. I have heard many ridiculous reasons for why students have plagiarised.

As a result, I too decided to list some of the student excuses I have experienced or heard from colleagues during investigations. The results were sad, however, not funny:

  • "My notes must have been wrong" (on being called on a dozen misattributed citations - i.e. citing real authors who did not say what their work is being cited for)
  • "I didn't know I had to keep them" (on being asked to supply their notes to support misattributed citations)
  • "Oh. I don't know that one" (on being called on multiple instances of false citations, i.e. sources which do not exist)
  • "I didn't know I had to do that" (after having taken a referencing course, then submitting work devoid of citations and references)
  • "My mother was sick" (on being asked why reference errors in their work were identical with another student)
  • "I'm homesick" (on submitting work well beyond their writing and English comprehension levels: so likely contracted - a friend wrote it for them; or papermill - they paid to have it written)
  • "Why asking all questions?" (on submitting work well beyond their writing and English comprehension levels - VERY likely contracted or papermill)
  • "My cousin said it would be OK" (on misattributed citations, false citations, and using tiny white quotation marks around paragraphs in an attempt to 'hide' direct plagiarism)
  • "Someone must have stolen it off my computer" and "It is just coincidence" (on work with a high similarity score through TurnItIn)
  • "It is my work" (on submitting papermill work only marked after the student scored under 30% in a final exam)
  • "I forgot to add the citation" and "I don't remember where I got the information" (on under-cited and under-referenced work)
  • "I submitted the wrong document" (when the correct one had been through a spinbot)
  • "I'm not very good at writing" and "It is impossible to paraphrase the information" (when using a spinbot to rehash original author words rather than doing the intellectual work, and paraphrasing)
  • "I am sorry. My friend helped me" (on submitting a contracted assignment)

It is great when students admit to dishonesty: but terrible that students feel the need to cut corners in the first place. 

Academic dishonesty is a complex problem, and is not a quick fix. In my experience, it tends to a largely male problem: so either men plagiarise more; or more men get caught. I find that academic dishonesty appears to happen more with international students: perhaps as it costs parents so much to send their offspring overseas to study, so success matters more; perhaps due to a lack of cultural fit; perhaps because of ends-focused values; perhaps because students often have to work to support themselves; perhaps as a result of poor English. 

I work across three schools. Two schools have mostly New Zealand student populations. In those schools there is very little plagiarism, lots of hard work, and a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). The other school is the counter-point, having a 90%+ international student population. Plagiarism is rife: and by 'rife', I mean approximately 10% of assignments contain cheating, which needs to be investigated. In my experience - and I loathe setting controlled assessments - the only way to be sure that a student is actually competent is to have at least one controlled, proctored assessment on each course. I have successfully created single-use case studies, with new questions, each time a course is run as a true test of student ability. This approach helps to ensure that only honest students pass.

However, not all staff make the effort (and it is a big effort), for each and every course. I am sure that students will have slipped through the net, and have completed qualifications for which they did not do the work. Some students will have purchased entire or part assessments, contracted out work, been academically slipshod, have used technical means to 'fool' TurnItIn, and have relied on over-burdened lecturers to ignore the hoofbeats of plagiarism.

I often wonder if these graduates become those who purchase papermill research papers which get published by peer reviewed journals, only to be retracted once suspicious academics do the unpaid spade-work (RetractionWatch, 2021).

Investigations take hours, are difficult to evidence, and often go unproven. A single investigation tends to take me at least ten hours of my time, unpaid, as it is on top of my 'normal' workload. Unless there is a student confession, the Academic Committee tends to side with the student. I appreciate that we need to err on the side of caution, to offset the power imbalance; however, Academic Committee members are usually not so familiar with students who cheat, so - in my view - cut too much slack. Lecturers who work in that particular school are far more familiar with the indicators of cheating, and we know the student 'voice', having taught them all year. When we hear hoofbeats, we think 'horses'; while the Academic Committee thinks 'zebras' (Woodward, 1950).

I don't know what the solution is for academic dishonesty. I can only say that working in two schools is a pleasure, but the third leaves me listening for hoofbeats all the time. Along with the sad, sad excuses.



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