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How (not) to deal with plagiarism

Posted on: May 15, 2020

I would like a semester to go by in which I do not encounter a case of academic plagiarism. But that might be wishful thinking.

I work with various institutes of higher learning (IHLs) and here is how they typically handle plagiarism by graduate students. The two broad approaches are prevention (before it happens) and intervention (after it does).

The preventative formula is uncannily similar. It is almost as if a cabal sat together to discuss a common approach — require students to read some material and take a quiz. The latter needs a high pass, e.g., 75 to 80%, to qualify as a prerequisite for other graduate courses.

The formula might also include constant (some say oppressive) reminders from instructors to students not to plagiarise. This message is sometimes conflated with matching scores in systems like Turnitin and I have written about why this is bad practice.

What is not clear in the formula is whether a) the student is writing academic papers at the time of taking the quiz, and b) the student’s supervisor is providing advice on such matters. Both are important if the learning is to be meaningful.

I am painfully aware of how some students take the quiz as quickly as they can without fully internalising the different aspects of plagiarism. I recall one student who insisted that citing a reference but copying paragraphs wholesale from that reference was not plagiarism.

The interventions seem to differ slightly. Most graduate programmes seem to have the equivalent of software terms and conditions that students have to sign. These are long contract-like statements that stipulate the consequences of plagiarism.

In one IHL, the intervention is largely based on counselling. If a student is caught plagiarising, they meet with a writing advisor so that they understand how and why this is wrong. In another IHL, the penalties are wielded more quickly, e.g., no/fail grade for the essay.

I would err on the side of giving students the benefit of the doubt. I wager that most are not familiar with academic integrity in writing even after passing the quiz. After all, their schooling and/or their workplaces might use press articles and popular media artefacts liberally and without attribution. They are doing what they were inevitably taught.

A compulsory consumption of resources and taking a test on plagiarism is not wrong. But it comes across as just one more administrative hurdle to jump over quickly. The process is done without meaning and/or loses its intent.

The deliver-and-test model of anti-plagiarism might seem efficient, but it is not effective if does not change mindsets and behaviours of all students. Yes, ALL. Not just, say, 75 to 80% of them. If even a sliver of students squeaks past this filter without changing, they go on to cheat. This tarnishes the name of the IHL.

As an adjunct now, I interact with hundreds of students. Anecdotally, many tell me that their supervisors do not actively teach them how to write. If supervisors do not do this, I do not know how they might teach their students about writing integrity. Plagiarising is a conscious human decision, so fighting against it requires the human effort of positive role-modelling and mentoring. A shortcut quiz is not going to cut it.

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