Stop caving in. Do you copy?

April 14, 2006

Are you just going to settle for rampant plagiarism or are you going to invest a bit of creative thinking to tackle the problem? asks Bob Brecher.

Given the current assessment boycott, the news that "1 in 6 admits to cheating" (March 17) may not disturb us as much as it might otherwise have done - or as much as it should. Of course, and as I recall suggesting some while back, there is an irony here. Our own working lives are governed by practices that are at best dubious and at worst morally bankrupt (example??? RAE???) . So how can we seriously object to students doing whatever they can to get the degrees they pay for, rather than working hard for something they have already bought? But then, too much cynicism serves merely to entrench the conditions that cause it.

So what can we do to encourage students not to plagiarise and instead to take their intellectual development seriously? One useful approach seems to be to discuss the issue with them at the beginning of their course. Why not debate the pros and cons of plagiarism, talk about what university education is and what it might be and try to get students to understand why they need to be educated and what that entails. It's no good assuming that students must be committed to education just because they've come to university. Some are, of course, but they're likely to be a minority. After all, an awful lot of their earlier experience has taught them that - like so much else - education is just a fraud, just another hoop they have to jump through. But that doesn't mean they can't be untaught.

Still, there are more concrete things we could do as well. We could structure assessment in such a way as to make it plagiarism-unfriendly.

Here are a few suggestions. Consider seminars. We could assess the contribution of each student to the discussion, so that every seminar "counts". Apart from the obvious benefits in terms of active participation, discussion can't be plagiarised. We could easily go further and include an oral examination as a standard part of finals. It could be based perhaps on a dissertation, or something similar, and, again, it can't be plagiarised.

Tutorials on essays are also immune to plagiarism: there's nothing quite like one or two-to-one discussions with tutors after they've marked essays to test students' understanding of what they've written. The same goes for all sorts of practicals, and indeed for group work in general. Furthermore, peer pressure not to plagiarise can be extremely effective - as well as serving a positive purpose at the same time. Sticks and carrots, so to speak, can be interchangeable.

Of course, assessment methods such as these have implications. The obvious ones are: the need for groups small enough to function as a seminar, time to give tutorials (let alone mark one's students' essays rather than "outsourcing" the task - admittedly bizarre, but not unknown), and a course structure that ensures that students and their tutors get to know one another.

In short, assessment that obviates plagiarism requires a genuinely educational structure: one that encourages students to learn to take themselves seriously and that requires academics to take them seriously, too. I suppose that looks at once rather old-fashioned and utopian. Be that as it may, what matters is that it's not at all impossible. We just need to stop giving in to the demands of those for whom education is just another consumer product and get on with it. Unless, of course, we'd rather put up with rampant plagiarism and give up on education altogether.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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