A cheat, moi? That's unfair

International students may be called plagiarists because of flawed thinking and naive use of software, says Niall Hayes

January 29, 2009

If the new forms of detection software are to be believed, a sizeable proportion of students are plagiarists - and the worst culprits are international students.

But when does poor referencing and an inability to better phrase an original source become cheating - and a reason for serious disciplinary action and the humiliation that goes along with it?

An Australian study of Turnitin - a detection service that compares work submitted electronically with the 2.6 billion publicly available pages on the internet and with all the essays it has previously checked - found that 14 per cent of 1,925 essays examined contained examples of plagiarism. Unacceptable levels of plagiarism were found in all six universities in the study and in more than 70 per cent of the subjects covered. The study noted that what was detected was just the tip of the iceberg because Turnitin did not check against many books, journals or "paper mills".

Detection systems are enough to make any student suffer from paranoia. Did I invent the line I just wrote? Have I created a new phrase, or am I regurgitating expressions that have been sitting in my brain from the article I read this morning or a website a year ago?

The challenges are far worse for international students, who work in a second or third language in an unfamiliar academic culture - and now are prey to suspicions that they may suffer from a congenital habit of plagiarism.

In fact, the reason such students are branded as cheats is that universities have flawed ideas about plagiarism. Plagiarism is not a simple phenomenon. It is not a straightforward choice between cheating and not cheating. A number of complex conditions shape the writing practices of students.

International students who study in the UK are given the vocabulary (theoretical ideas) and the grammar (academic style of writing, structure, argumentation, referencing and so on) and then are expected to be expert users of the academic language, and to be able to converse (write an essay) by directly creating independent phrases.

However, these ideas, rules and conventions, even if understood individually, do not equip non-native students to immediately speak and write this new language.

International students learn to deal with academic study through "patch-writing". In the process of learning to "speak like the teacher" and the authors they read, international students copy from source texts, use different grammatical structures where needed, and replace words with synonyms. In itself, patch-writing can demonstrate an active and informed engagement with texts, and can often be used to develop an independent argument.

There are also cultural considerations. In many Asian cultures, copying, especially through large amounts of repetition, is seen as the true route to learning. Young learners are encouraged to copy good expression and exemplars.

Detection systems do not pick up on plagiarism - they detect exact copies of strings of characters. This is an important distinction if we are to treat students appropriately.

For example, one by-product of the detection system is a league table that highlights the submissions with the most text copied. But this table is likely to list at the top those students who struggle with language, academic culture or subjects rather than just students who cheat. They might more usefully be branded "problem" detection systems.

With regard to their potential to identify "cheats", you could argue that those who cheat deliberately would try to avoid detection by rewriting many of the words they have copied and thus escape notice. Indeed, if one changes the text sufficiently from the original, it is possible to copy the ideas and retain some of the text of the original source but remain undetected. So what are we detecting?

The issue of plagiarism detection cannot be delegated to an electronic system or service that can cope only with the idea that copying equals plagiarism. The software is being used too early in the careers of students, when they need some time and understanding of the transition they are making into the sometimes shadowy rules of academic writing, not even more suspicion and scrutiny.

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