Hundreds fail to spot plagiarism

Study reveals half of students skip over attribution and many have lenient views on punishment for cheats

April 23, 2015

Source: Alamy

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

As an upstanding citizen of the academic community, Times Higher Education feels obliged to admit that this phrase was coined by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man. However, it seems that the many new undergraduates who bear out its truth would have no such qualms about presenting it as their own insight.

According to a paper in the journal Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, new undergraduates are typically confident that they understand what plagiarism involves, but fail to demonstrate it in tests.

The paper, “Academic integrity: a quantitative study of confidence and understanding in students at the start of their higher education”, is written by Philip Newton, an associate professor in Swansea University’s College of Medicine. He asked about 600 new undergraduates and postgraduates from across the disciplines whether a student’s behaviour in various scenarios was acceptable – and, if not, how it should be punished.

Of the undergraduates, 86 per cent said that they had at least a “reasonable understanding” of plagiarism, and 74 per cent said the same of referencing conventions. But they consistently opted for significantly less stringent punishments for plagiarism than their own unnamed research-intensive university actually applies. For instance, only 10 per cent thought that submitting a bought essay as their own should lead – as it does – to expulsion. The majority thought that it should only entail failure of the particular assignment.

Most also thought that submitting an assignment consisting of ideas copied from elsewhere but rewritten in their own words was either permissible (31 per cent) or was just unpunishable bad practice (34 per cent); just 4 per cent thought it should entail, as it does, failure of the whole module. Only 51 per cent of undergraduates recognised the need for quotation marks around a large block of quoted text, and just 47 per cent realised the necessity of re-citing a source every time it is quoted (of academic staff tested, correct answers to those questions were given by 92 and 85 per cent respectively).

“Taken separately, the findings…may suggest the existence of a ‘perfect storm’”, the paper says, with “students…having a seriously misplaced confidence in their understanding of referencing and plagiarism, combined with a lenient view of how transgressions…should be penalised”.

However, Dr Newton says that the concern is tempered by the fact that the students with the highest confidence in understanding plagiarism – often postgraduates – tend to do better in the tests and recommend harsher punishments. This, he says, supports the view that educating students about plagiarism is an effective strategy to combat it.

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