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.

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Research Officer - Big Data for Better Outcomes LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS & POLITICAL SCIENCE LSE

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

Application for graduate job
Universities producing the most employable graduates have been ranked by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2016
Retired academics calculating moves while playing bowls

Lincoln Allison, Eric Thomas and Richard Larschan reflect on the ‘next phase’ of the scholarly life