Originality score to curb copying

Lecturer develops a 'more enriching' way of dealing with student plagiarism. Rebecca Attwood explains

May 22, 2008

An academic has developed a novel approach to dealing with his students' plagiarism - he gives them marks for the proportion of their presentations that are not copied.

According to Steve Bennett, principal lecturer in the School of Computer Science at the University of Hertfordshire, it is "much more enriching to affirm and reward student originality than to track down and prosecute student plagiarism".

So in a recent assessment in which students on Hertfordshire's masters in mobile computing were marked on presentations, he used plagiarism detection software not to give a "score" for any copying that was detected, but to provide an "authenticity score". This fed into students' marks for the assignment.

Mr Bennett said there were strong arguments for reducing the "legalistic and law enforcement side" of plagiarism detection.

He said: "When attempting to combat plagiarism, the paradigm we seem to fall back on is that of policing. We turn to (plagiarism detection software programs) TurnItIn and Ferret just as the police turn to CCTV and Mosquito devices to stop kids hanging around street corners.

"However, might it be possible to look at it in a different light? Instead of curbing copying, shouldn't we seek to cultivate authentic self-expression in our students?"

He said students did not identify with concepts such as scholarly ethics but did respond to the values of self-respect and self-sufficiency, which led to greater originality and could be nurtured and encouraged.

Mr Bennett conceded that his approach might not suit all disciplines and that removing plagiarism from the academic misconduct process "no longer creates a record of student transgressions, which is not necessarily a good thing". But he argued that today's time-consuming system created "perverse incentives" for academics to turn a blind eye.

He said: "Does the discovery of outbreaks of plagiarism in an institution attest to the seriousness with which the institution treats it or the widescale diffusion of the practice among its students? Does the non-discovery of plagiarism at an institution show the honesty of its students or the nonchalance of its academic conduct officers?"

Jude Carroll, a plagiarism expert at Oxford Brookes University, said: "This sounds like a really positive approach. He is saying to students he wants them to learn, he doesn't want to waste his time being a policeman for their copying."

George MacDonald Ross, senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Leeds, said: "I don't agree that plagiarism should be decriminalised." But he said the issue was not simply a disciplinary matter. "It is far better to foster a positive culture in which cheating becomes unthinkable," he said.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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