Plagiarism: think before pointing finger of blame

May 18, 2001

Sheldon Weeks says teachers in southern Africa must use their detective skills to stop students cheating.

Plagiarism is a growing problem among students in southern Africa. At some universities, plagiarism results in an automatic "zero", and if you fail one course, you fail the programme. There is no appeal. Other universities attempt to identify degrees of plagiarism. Others provide a sequence of warnings.

But is the student the real culprit? It is recognised that plagiarism is caused by a variety of factors. One is the poor quality of education in communication skills. Students have not learnt how to cite sources and how to formulate a bibliography. Some have not even learnt how to use quotations.

Such problems are compounded by a growing number of work-study or part-time students who may not have time to research and write dissertations.

The values of students seem to be shifting. As tertiary enrolments increase, there are more students who are not aware of the line between honesty and dishonesty in academic practice.

There is a great temptation to use someone else's work without acknowledging it. Students see others getting away with it and wonder why they cannot.

Having to study and communicate in a second or third language is difficult. Sometimes students lack the confidence to express their ideas in English and so fall back on pirating.

It is also acknowledged that lecturers can be at fault. Too many staff continue to rely on what they have taught last year, five years ago, even ten years ago. The topics assigned for essays are the same each year and this can encourage plagiarism.

There is limited academic review, revision or quality assurance to ensure that it is difficult for students to use other peoples' work. So it is not hard for students to copy from texts, journal articles or the web.

The reproduction of bulleted lists without using quotation marks (and with no indication of the source) appears to be on the increase. The information explosion ensures their safety from detection as their instructor is ignorant of the sources they have used. An enterprising student can recycle another student's paper from five years ago if the lecturer has not changed the assignment.

Collusion is another problem that is not significantly recognised. When 80 students in a class are asked to write on the same topic, they often help each other.

So what are the solutions? One is to recognise the causes. Improve the quality of students' communication skills. Another is for departments to monitor the teaching methods of their colleagues so that they revise their courses regularly and give different assignments to each student.

Staff must also become computer and web literate and keep up with the literature in their field.

At the University of Botswana, steps are being taken to develop a policy on "academic honesty", including plagiarism. One development is the establishment of a writing clinic that helps students plan and write their work. Staff at the clinic ensure that students know how to use and acknowledge their sources.

Sheldon G. Weeks is dean of graduate studies at the University of Botswana. He has worked on academic honesty with colleagues at the universities of Dar es Salaam, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho.

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