Monday, September 12, 2011

On plagiarism

Plagiarism is one of the most unpleasant things to deal with when teaching. Panos Ipeirotis wrote a blog post that stimulated some discussion, and was then removed because of legal threats. In short, he detected a fairly large amount of plagiarism in a class, but calling the students out on it created a lot of antipathy towards him, leading to a lower student evaluation, which adversely effected his own financial propects.

The later discussions suggested setting assignments that are impossible for the students to plagiarise. During my tenure teaching at the University of Otago, I saw my fair share (or more than my fair share) of plagiarism, and some of it was pretty bad.

The worst I saw was while teaching my second-year data processing course. It's not like it was difficult to detect, either: the copied portions stood out because the writing style was completely different. A few seconds with Google was usually enough to find the exact source. The easiest-detected case of plagiarism I dealt with was when a student copied from the laboratory manual - which I had written. There were so many cases of plagiarism in that course that the higher-ups changed the way in which plagiarism was dealt with: originally, all cases of plagiarism were sent to the dean of School. After a few weeks of me sending students to them, the regulation was changed to sending them to the head of department. The only penalty the students received, though, was a zero for the work that they had plagiarsied in. By the end of the year, I'd detected more plagiarism than the rest of the department put together, which raises the question: did more students plagiarise in my course, or was I just better at detecting them? If the former, was it because my course was harder? Because it was a required course that the students weren't really interested in? Or were the students really not smart enough to do the course without cheating? If the latter, why did I detect more than the other teaching staff? Was I the only one who read the assignments carefully? Did the other teaching staff not care? Or was it that the assessments in other courses were such that plagiarism was harder to commit in the first place, that is, more practically oriented?

While most of the plagiarism I dealt with was from undergrads, I have come across it reviewing papers, as well. Again, it was easy to detect: most of the paper was written very badly, apart from two or three paragraphs. Again, a few seconds work on Google was enough to find the original source. Needless to say, the paper was rejected. Since it was only a conference paper, I doubt that there were any repercussions on the authors.

As far as student plagiarism is concerned, I agree with the notion that it is better to spend time setting assessments that can't be plagiarised. The one course I taught that never had a problem with plagiarism was my fourth-year computational intelligence course. Now, that is partly likely to be because the students were highly-motivated, honours-level students, but also because of the nature of the lectures and assessment. Rather than me giving lectures twice a week, students took turns researching and presenting on a topic. There was a list of permissible topics for each week, so that the presentations followed the curriculum I had set out for the course, the students got support in researching their talk, and I went over each presentation before it was given. The practical work was entirely project-oriented, where again the students selected a project that interested them. This actually worked very well: it taught the students valuable skills and left no scope for plagiarism. I wonder, though, how well it would work for third or even second year students?

Perhaps a more important question is, why do students plagiarise? If we could answer that question, could plagiarism be eradicated? Or would there always be some students who are simply so desperate (or so unable / unwilling to do the work) that they will always plagiarise?

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