Behind the web of lies

June 1, 2007

Blaming the internet and IT for the rise in plagiarism does not address the root cause for students' disregard of scholarly endeavour, says Hannah Devlin

The rise of new technology is often portrayed as having disastrous consequences for higher education. In particular, internet plagiarism tends to be reported in the press with a degree of moral outrage normally reserved for sex scandals or lying politicians. But delegates at the recent Beyond the Search Engine conference on plagiarism at Oxford University took a different view. In a debate they voted overwhelmingly against the motion that "new technology is undermining the traditional values of integrity and rigour in academic research and study".

While it was acknowledged that the internet can facilitate plagiarism, the consensus was that it is not to blame for its apparent rise in recent years. "There are many reasons for plagiarism being so rife," says James Forder, senior proctor at Oxford. "It would be foolish to limit the causes of this to technology."

Fear of failure, lack of effort on the part of tutors and increasing preoccupation with gaining credentials were highlighted as factors contributing to plagiarism. It was also suggested that the rise was simply down to better detection due to widespread subscription by universities to turnitin.com, the online plagiarism-detection service.

Far from undermining scholarly values, the majority took the view that the information technology revolution is revitalising university education and highlighting weaknesses in the higher education system.

The challenge that easier plagiarism presents to tutors setting assignments is one way the internet may be bringing about improvements. Since model answers to traditional essay titles lie a mere click away, there is a demand for tutors to put more thought into the questions they ask their students. "Tutors need to stop setting coursework that doesn't acknowledge the existence of Google," says Jude Carroll, author of Deterring Plagiarism in Higher Education and staff developer at Oxford Brookes University.

"The wealth of information freely available on the internet means it's no longer acceptable to set a coursework titled 'write about Mars'. If that leads to more thought-provoking assignments being set, it's a good thing," Carroll says.

In response to pressure for more original assignments, undergraduate coursework could be set to link in more closely with academic research.

Asking students to discuss a current research paper, for example, would overcome the problem of internet plagiarism, as little related material would exist on the web. This would provide insight into the process of academic research and keep students up to date with developments in their field. It also offer tutors the opportunity to talk about their own work, an indulgence few academics can resist.

It is easy to overlook the possibilities for dissemination that new technology presents students. But sharing work online may be encouraged in the future. Just as publishing one's research is the raison d'être for academics it should form an important part of study, argues Jonathan Zittrain, chair in internet governance and regulation at Oxford. "Plagiarism is just one outcome of students posting their work on the web," he says. "The internet also allows students to contribute to the real world, which is instrumental in not treating education as a cynical game."

The greater ease of access to information afforded by new technology is being hailed as a particular benefit for students at less wealthy institutions. Where in the past students' access to books and journals depended on the quality of their university library, the internet has gone a long way to level the distribution of resources.

"It's the best thing to happen to education since the Gutenberg press," says John Barrie, chief executive of Turnitin software.

Increased societal obsession with credentials is seen as an impetus for many students who copy the work of others in order to get better marks. For undergraduates more interested in gaining a qualification at the end of their degree than in actual learning, downloading material from the web is a viable way to accomplish their goal.

In addition, most students now pay tuition fees, which can lead to their feeling justified in pursuing a less than honest route to success. "Because we're paying for our degrees, it doesn't feel like cheating," one undergraduate commented. For such students, new technology may have made cheating more convenient - but it is not the underlying cause of their disregard for scholarly endeavour.

The anonymity of the internet is another reason some students slip into dishonesty. At one time students would have to approach seniors in person to ask to copy their work, but online essay exchanges mean this is no longer necessary. "The possibility of students dealing with people writing essays for them in utter anonymity makes it easier to cross that moral boundary," Forder said in his introductory address at the conference.

Many argue that new technology is helping to spot plagiarism as much as encourage it. More than 80 per cent of UK universities now subscribe to turnitin.com, a highly effective tool for identifying uncited content lifted from the internet.

But despite its technical efficiency, detection software does not address the underlying causes of plagiarism. To respond effectively to technical developments, we must also examine the way in which learning is carried out and rewarded in higher education.

Hannah Devlin is studying for a PhD at Oxford University.

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