Cape Town scholars' DIY approach to plagiarism

September 16, 2010

South African academics shun formal procedures for student plagiarism, preferring to deal with it themselves, a study has found.

A paper published in the journal Studies in Higher Education reveals the attitudes of staff working at the University of Cape Town towards academic misconduct.

The study, "The Tangled Web: Investigating Academics' Views of Plagiarism at the University of Cape Town", found that although instances of misconduct at the institution are no higher than those at UK universities, plagiarism cases are "significantly" under-reported.

"Academics tend to evade official university policies and procedures if they do not perceive (them) to be sufficiently sensitive to individual interpretation," it says. "If policies are seen to be ignored, perceptions arise that some students who might be guilty ... are not being held accountable."

The study, comprising an analysis of case records from disciplinary tribunals and a survey of academics to establish how they deal with the problem, was carried out by Karin de Jager and Cheryl Brown, experts in information studies at Cape Town.

Evidence from the tribunals reveals that between 50 and 90 cases are dealt with each year, lower per head than at a comparable UK institution. But the survey reveals that staff uncover many more incidents than make it to tribunal.

Almost three-quarters of respondents (140 of 191) say they have encountered student plagiarism. But although 109 say they "never" ignore plagiarism completely, only 56 had referred a student to a tribunal.

"Academics only rarely completely ignore what they regard as plagiarism, but they are much more inclined to fail the assignment, assign zero marks, or approach their head of department for a decision," the paper reports.

Respondents also made recommendations on how to tackle the problem among students, including more support for academic writing.

"Writing and referencing are difficult for many students and teaching strategies should be adapted so that it is more difficult, if not impossible, to plagiarise," it adds.

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