Over the past few years, there have been growing attempts in Spain to increase discussion in the academic community about plagiarism, and establish official policies and remedies to combat the problem.
A trail has been blazed by academics at the University of Granada; in 2008 they launched a teacher-led initiative named Plataforma contra el Plagio (Platform against Plagiarism). It was backed by more than 40 lecturers and aimed to spread the message to students and fellow academics about the consequences of plagiarism. In an open letter at the time proposing such a platform, Rosa María Medina Doménech – a teacher at Granada – admitted that plagiarism was a common practice in Spain. More worryingly, she stated that there were no official statistics at a national level and universities had no way of tackling it in a coordinated, uniform manner.
However, despite these efforts, on a practical level nothing has changed in the country at large. A situation where students get away with blatant plagiarism and academics are left resorting to court action in order to settle cases of academic dishonesty is taken for granted at universities across Spain.
According to a pan-European investigation into plagiarism published last year – the Impact of Policies for Plagiarism in Higher Education across Europe report – the situation in the UK could not be more different.
The UK was deemed to have the most mature system to tackle the problem, although there were still difficulties. For example, some UK universities did not hold central records of plagiarism cases and instead relied on staff “to handle the cases using academic judgement”.
However, efforts against plagiarism in UK universities were largely formalised and, most importantly, implemented. By 2013, 98 per cent of UK institutions were using the plagiarism detecting service Turnitin, according to the software provider. In addition, a number of universities asked students to complete “own work” declaration forms whenever they submitted written assessments, confirming they had not received assistance from any third parties.
Meanwhile in Spain, the report found, “very few institutions have [a] top-down strategy or policy for preventing and detecting plagiarism”. This meant that there was huge disparity between the penalties given, ranging from a simple verbal warning to awarding a zero mark for the plagiarised piece. There were even cases where teachers publicly acknowledged that a student had plagiarised a piece of written work, but they had issued no penalty.
In line with the university’s attempts to tackle plagiarism, Granada did include a formalised policy in its 2013 assessment guidelines. The change followed a 2011 “innovation project” at the institution, named Estrategias para Prevenir y Detectar el Plagio Académico en Humanidades (Strategies for Preventing and Detecting Academic Plagiarism in Humanities), the first of its kind in Spain, led by Christiane Heine, a professor at Granada.
The new policy states that students have to sign their submitted work and include a written declaration asserting that it is completely original and free of incorrectly cited sources. Detection of plagiarism will lead to an automatic zero for the whole course.
However, anecdotal evidence from students and academics suggests that adoption of the policy has been slow.
Miguel Ángel del Arco Blanco, a lecturer in contemporary history at Granada, said there was a gap between institutional policies and their practical application. He said that none of his students had ever handed him an “own work” declaration form and he argued that awarding a zero to his students was an “insufficient” deterrent, suggesting alternative sanctions such as forbidding the student from enrolling in a course the following academic year or forcing them to change university.
Professor Heine accepted that there was a problem and that “most teachers do not know that such [plagiarism] guidelines exist”. But she stressed that the project had “no control with regard to [the guidelines’] application”. Her innovation project has revealed the scale of the problem at Granada: 58 per cent of students surveyed for the study in 2011-12 admitted to having copied fragments of texts without indicating the source, and 53 per cent confessed that they changed words in texts they had copied without mentioning the source. Perhaps more revealingly, 81 per cent of surveyed students said they were unaware of the university’s anti-plagiarism campaign, highlighting the lack of communication between the institution and its students.
Meanwhile, Granada’s university library service has opened up another front in the battle by implementing the use of plagiarism detecting software Ephorus from 2012. However, as of December 2013, a mere 374 users have registered and only 10,095 documents have been checked by Ephorus, according to the official library data.
Considering that Granada’s student population is in excess of 55,000, these statistics reveal that, despite being relatively pioneering, the university still has a long way to go before it fully gets to grips with a problem that has dogged Spanish higher education for years.