Students ‘don’t understand’ plagiarism, research suggests

Students think it ‘unfair’ to be punished for unintentional plagiarism

August 15, 2016
Man photocopying a book
Source: iStock

Students have “no understanding” of what plagiarism is and why they must avoid it, according to new research.

Lee Adam, education research fellow at the University of Otago, finds that universities might need to consider their plagiarism policies and how they might “influence or confuse students in counterproductive ways”.

In the qualitative study, published in the journal Higher Education, Dr Adam interviewed 21 Otago undergraduates and found that although “aware of plagiarism as a concept” and believing that those who “intentionally cheat are cheating everybody”, students were ignorant of the potential implications of unintentional plagiarism. This was most likely not restricted to Australasia and would be the case in other global higher education systems, she says in her paper, “‘It’s not fair’: policy discourses and students’ understandings of plagiarism in a New Zealand university”.

“Either they [students] are not accessing the information we’re giving them, or we’re not providing it to them in a form they really understand,” she told Times Higher Education. “My research shows they don’t understand it, [but] said they wanted more information on plagiarism and how to avoid it.”

Dr Adam said that because of this, students felt it was unfair when they were penalised for unintentional plagiarism. Students saw themselves as “weak” and “teachers and the institution as powerful”. 

Dr Adam continued: “What students were trying to articulate was ‘why do you expect us to be able to do this?’ Learning to write and learning to avoid plagiarism is linked with learning how to create knowledge in a particular discipline, and I think students understood this as well, but weren’t able to articulate it.”

She suggested that students were not connecting academic writing "to creating knowledge, they were connecting writing with…showing what they knew”.

“I think if they could make that quantum leap, then the whole concept of avoiding plagiarism would make a lot more sense to them and they would be more able to do it.”

Dr Adam suggested that what students and institutions viewed as the purpose of a university education were so disconnected that students “possibly don’t see academic writing and avoiding plagiarism” as important.

“I found that all of the students, except for one, found university as a stepping stone to employment and as an opportunity to get a job ticket,” she said. “When we consider plagiarism in relation to that, obviously they wouldn’t see the relevance of learning academic writing [and] learning to avoid plagiarism.”

Dr Adam said that following her research, Otago revised its “dishonest practice procedures”, which she had helped to write some years before “in good faith”, and relabelled them as an “academic integrity policy” to make them more “student-friendly”.

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Reader's comments (7)

The students have got the right end of the stick on this, and the academics need to catch up. As a matter of fact, we mainly judge students on whether they know the material in their courses. 'Plagiarism' used to be about failing to produce the material as 'one's own' -- i.e. in a manner that does more than cut-and-paste from sources. This was something that could be supposedly detected by the trained eye of the academic, just as art connoisseurs detect forgeries and cliched attempts to copy a model. It wasn't meant to be about intellectual property violation, which is what the use of automated plagiarism detectors like Turnitin encourage. If we continue down this route, then the 'creativity' demanded of students will be reduced to whatever escapes the plagiarism 'know-bot'.
It's an interesting finding, albeit an unsurprising one. Expecting especially undergrads to think of their paper-writing as "creating knowledge" is unrealistic. As an undergrad (or in many cases even a Master's student) you're trained to study and replicate your knowledge in a paper or exam, with individual becoming tacked on as you move along in your degree. The fact that under these conditions, students view a paper as an exercise in "showing what they know" is completely normal. And I think a lot of instructors actually see it exactly the same way!
I'm not sure I see either the findings or the comments are helpful. For a start, there seems to be a false dichotomy in this from Dr Adam: "Either they [students] are not accessing the information we’re giving them, or we’re not providing it to them in a form they really understand”. This seems to suggest that you can explain plagiarism propositionally, whereas I would liken it more to riding a bike - it requires practice, rather than explanation. A more productive pedagogical approach is to show rather than tell. Second, conflating "originality" or submitting "one's own work" with "creating knowledge" is a counter-productive perspective in regard to student work. The answer to the question "why do I have to know this?" is: "so we can see what you know, and understand". Until the advent of originality software, a piece of student writing that plausibly gave the impression that some intermediary thought had taken place between reading and writing would not be seen as plagiarised. Again, there are other approaches beyond "creating knowledge" and "presenting knowledge". One of these is to stress the argumentative or exploratory aspect of course work, particularly essays. An argumentative case must be informed, reasoned, and by implication, personal - all things that we look for in student writing.
Misconduct in research is one of the rampant problems academia is dealing with. However, unintentional plagiarism is a challenging issue. Not just undergraduate students, even senior researchers stumble into the trap of plagiarism without any intention of committing a fraud. At Editage Insights, we interact with several researchers who seek guidance since they feel confused about the guidelines and they should to follow to avoid plagiarism. This indicates that educating academicians and making them aware of their responsibilities and bringing a change in their attitude towards the seriousness of compliance violation should be the top priority of institutions. I have authored a detailed article on this issue here:
The problem is that what is called plagiarism is four independent issues. One is "copying"; the failure to express an author's ideas except by adopting the author's own words. The second is "failure of attribution". Many students are condemned for plagiarism where it is obvious the student is not seeking the credit for an idea but has failed to attribute the credit to the true author in the correct source material. The third is "passing off" where the student does seek to obtain the credit for another's idea. The fourth is "collusion" where students collaborate on what is required to be a solo effort. The first two are essentially a lack of an academic skill. The third is dishonest and the fourth can be dishonest; but more commonly reflects a failure to understand that rules mean what they say ("but constable, I was only going a little bit over the speed limit"). Treating offenders in all of these different ways as being guilty of the same offence (albeit with different gradations of punishment) is wholly unhelpful.
I have some difficulty with the findings of this study given that the group involved in the qualitative survey was only 21 students. Is this number representative of the entire undergraduate experience with plagiarism knowledge and understanding? How many people were asked or invited to participate as compared to the actual group? What is the breakdown of the type of student? Local, international, what faculty are they attached to, etc.? Is there a reason the survey was not quantitative? This approach may have enabled a much larger group of respondents and therefore more data for analysis.
Perhaps it's the maths background I have, but I find the concept of "plagiarism of ideas" rather fraught. The line between, understanding something deeply, and creating original ideas about something feels very blurry. To quote Feynman, "What I cannot create, I do not understand". Writing down what you read while writing something, and including a literature review is one thing, but the process of working out the provenance of *your* understanding of something, feels like rather like an artificial process of hunting around for other people who have said similar things to you. As a reader who roves into many topics, I can't say I feel that belaboured reference helps in the creation of knowledge. The obsession with history in philosophy and sociology feels distracting if anything. Very simple ideas expressed slowly, and in strange ways due to the need to show that you've read enough about historic Greek figures. In maths, academics just completely pave over people's ideas, creating proofs and a landscape entirely distinct from the one used by the discoverer of an idea, and then perhaps putting the discovers name on something that on no way resembles their work. I'm tempted to conclude that accidental plagiarism is more of a problem the more stagnant a field is. When there aren't that many new ideas coming along everyone has to fight for each iota of creativity they generate. Pedagogical, I would agree with the earlier posters comment about argumentative essays making plagiarism less likely. Boring tasks done by many other people encourage plagiarism. Difficult activities demand understanding. One particular way to instantly, make things more interesting is to try to break them....

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