Less cut and thrust more cut and paste

February 16, 2007

If academe is to tackle plagiarism, it must begin to levy tougher penalties on cheats and reward the honest, argues Sunny Bains.

It doesn't pay to be an honest student. Early penalties for plagiarism are so minor that if it is a choice between handing in nothing and handing in 15 paragraphs plucked from Wikipedia and HowStuffWorks, then you'd be mad not to cheat. There's a chance, of course, that you'll get caught and get zero. But then you were going to get zero for handing in nothing anyway.

I recently started a crackdown on plagiarism on an undergraduate course where I teach engineers how to write and give presentations. I told first-year students that using essays from cheating websites was a mistake and showed them how major changes in topic and writing style made it easy to tell where sources of text changed. I then gave the same class to graduate teaching assistants.

The GTAs did well: they caught a total of 16 plagiarising students out of about 160 in the class. Most of these had cut and pasted whole paragraphs from the web for an assignment.

Then I had a brainstorm. I told the class that we had found that 10 per cent of the essays were plagiarised and offered honest students (a relative term in this context) a lesser punishment if they admitted that they had cheated. I reminded them what cut-and-paste plagiarism was. Not only did several of those we'd already caught admit that they'd cheated, but so did ten others that we hadn't identified.

Here's what was supposed to happen. Those who came forward would get zero for their essay. However, they could avoid further punishment by rewriting it and would also get feedback on their writing (the main point of the exercise).

Those who had not come forward would get zero, plus only half marks for their next two assignments on my course (a small module worth 3 per cent of the year). It was a punishment determined from a logical stance: that it had to be worse being caught plagiarising than submitting nothing at all.

In addition, the offence might end up on their permanent record.

The department was great: my boss passed on the evidence that we presented concerning the students who had not admitted cheating to the college administration with the recommendations that we had agreed between us. He was confident that they would, as they had always done in the past, accept our plan, and was pleased that we'd made a big leap forward with this perennial issue.

What neither of us realised was that the college regulations (inherited from the University of London and adhered to by many UK universities) seem to prohibit punishment outside reprimand and a penalty on the single piece of work that was plagiarised. I say "seem to" because the wording is a little vague and open to interpretation. The department is figuring out what to do next. I've asked the college to take a new look at their regulations.

But just fixing things here is not enough - the culture has to change. I attended a plagiarism seminar a few years ago where we were encouraged to give plagiarists only moderate penalties - warnings - an approach based on the argument that cheating students are only depriving themselves in the long run.

However, this just doesn't wash: the honest students suffer as a vicious cycle develops. We set work for them. Some do the work; some copy it from others. However, because a significant proportion of the class is cheating, they're not learning. So the teaching does not appear to be effective. So we assign more work to try to get the information into the minds of the students. Now more of them are overwhelmed with the workload, more are likely to cheat, and so on. And those who are learning are likely to be getting worse grades than those who are not.

And let's not forget that our degrees are devalued by students who come out with poor minds and good grades. A pool of graduates becomes a lucky dip for employers: they have to hope they don't get the one who took all the shortcuts.

If you doubt that plagiarism is practised by a large minority, talk to my GTAs. Those who did their undergraduate degrees here will tell you about the cheating cartels and the groups with high-graded laboratory reports going back years for students to copy from. Anyone involved with teaching can confirm that there is a serious problem.

I want to end my story with a shocking twist. Of the essays that were resubmitted because of admitted plagiarism, almost half had plagiarised again. Obviously, this means there is a deep problem in secondary education, in our process of selecting university students and in our academic culture.

I would argue that being more punitive towards plagiarisers and more lenient towards honest students will be an important element in changing this culture.

Sunny Bains is a technical communication tutor at Imperial College London.

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