Don’t beat about, use moral appeals to stop plagiarism

Tutors focus on penalties but students respond on ethical level, study finds

January 16, 2014

Source: Alamy

Oh the shame: punishment alone may not be the best approach to plagiarism

Academics could be more successful in deterring plagiarism among their students if they emphasise why it is morally wrong rather than focus on punishment alone, a study has found.

Instead of ratcheting up penalties for plagiarism, scholars could use an anonymised “wall of shame” displaying those caught cheating to help develop students’ “moral sensibilities”, one of the report’s authors has suggested.

Rebecca Awdry, director of academic policy and review at the University of Canberra, and Rick Sarre, a professor in the School of Law at the University of South Australia, surveyed 183 students at an unnamed institution in the UK.

Only 17 per cent of respondents said that they would plagiarise if there was no chance of being caught, but 55 per cent said that they would not plagiarise because of their “desire to learn”. Nearly half of respondents also said that they would not cheat as it would bring down the value of their degrees.

Nonetheless, fear of punishment remained a big deterrent, being cited by 55 per cent of respondents.

Seven per cent of male students said they had plagiarised intentionally, compared with 1 per cent of female respondents.

Students were asked to comment on what stopped them from plagiarising, but none discussed a fear of punishment. Most commonly they spoke about plagiarism being “cheating and dishonest” and about their need to prove that they can do the work.

In contrast with the students, a group of six tutors interviewed at the institution focused heavily on detection and punishment.

“The tutors all believed that if there were harsher penalties, better detection processes for plagiarism and more awareness of the issue, the risks would increase so greatly that the prevalence of plagiarism would decrease,” state the authors in An Investigation into Plagiarism Motivations and Prevention Techniques: Can They Be Appropriately Aligned?

There was a “marked disjunction” between the attitude of the tutors, who thought in terms of “deterrence and punishment”, and the students, of whom an “overwhelming proportion” felt that plagiarism was morally wrong.

“Tutors should focus less on the detection and punishment of plagiarism and more on the value of students completing their own work and valuing their own integrity,” the paper concludes. “Just as children are taught from primary school that cheating is wrong, so it should be that university students should be reminded of the importance of honesty and integrity.”

Ms Awdry told Times Higher Education that focusing on the immorality of plagiarism was a “critical area that can be improved”, and previous institutions in which she had worked had contemplated creating an anonymous “wall of shame” showing who had been caught cheating during that semester.

She also cited “honour councils”, used in the US, in which panels of students decide how to deal with a peer caught cheating.

“This could perhaps go some way towards making all students feel more included in the actual impact and processing of cheating and could place more moral sensibilities on them,” she said.

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