How to break that cheating art

February 22, 2002

It's a whole new world of plagiarism and we need regulation fit for the 21st century, argues Wilfried Decoo.

Modern technology allows a new level of cheating on written assignments. Whatever the topic, students need only type a few key words into and information sources pop up in a second. Cheating ranges from naive cut-and-paste jobs to internet writing workshops that advertise "single-client service" for an original term paper, book report, thesis or dissertation - all major credit cards accepted and total discretion guaranteed.

But it is not just students who plagiarise. Academics under "publish or perish" pressures have been known to push professional integrity into the background.

Our academic standards grew out of the knowledge explosion of the 16th century, fuelled by the technological innovations of printing and geographical and scientific discoveries. But these were not ethical times for intellectual property. Piracy and plagiarism abounded. Royal societies and academies were founded to credit discoveries and regulate publications. They elaborated codes of conduct. Legal concepts such as copyright, patent and trademark emerged that curbed abuse.

Today we are facing a similar revolution and we need to devise a solid regulatory response based on thorough research.

First, we need to define plagiarism in the modern context. It is seldom the blatant verbatim copying of whole pages. It is the art of ambiguity. Many seek to explain away copied work: the phrase is a truism, the wording is different, the source is cited later in the article, the copying was inadvertent, the quotation marks disappearedI Most institutions have plagiarism definitions in place. But do they cover all its many forms? Thorough analysis should make them easier to identify.

Second, we need to be able to detect plagiarism quickly and accurately. Using the phrase-searches offered by some internet services is insufficient in most cases. Clever plagiarists adapt text sufficiently to avoid detection. We need to develop instruments that can compare texts with complex lexical and syntactic transformations - even texts in different languages - and produce similarity ratios in seconds.

Third, teachers need to take their responsibility as guardians of integrity more seriously. Research indicates that many avoid confronting plagiarists. They may fear retaliation or they have witnessed cases where the system has suppressed investigation, discouraged "negative publicity" and minimised academic misconduct. Why should they risk their careers if no one else cares? More research is needed into the complex social, mental and emotional processes involved in confronting misconduct.

Fourth, safe ways of reporting and handling plagiarism claims need to be established since most fall into the grey area between a gentleman's agreement and an acrimonious lawsuit. Research is needed to help establish normalised procedures for academic misconduct cases that ensure the rights of the accused and the accusers are equally safeguarded.

Finally, we need more research into how plagiarism can be discouraged by teaching ethics. We also need to look at whether assignments can be adapted to curb plagiarism while still allowing students to take advantage of the internet's educational assets.

Wilfried Decoo is professor of applied linguistics at Brigham Young University, US, and at the University of Antwerp. His book, Crisis on Campus : Confronting Academic Misconduct , is published this week by MIT Press, priced £22.50.

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