Why I... believe that software that prevents plagiarism prevents learning

July 9, 2004

The recent launch of a software package for plagiarism prevention suggests that its developers are either naive or bordering on evil. For once, the Big Brother cliche has been applied appropriately. It involves technology's ever-present eye being used to enforce conformity and stifle thought.

In constantly looking over the shoulders of students and enforcing the protocol of citation and referencing without justification or explanation, software of this nature limits choice, could dangerously shape student thought and prevents learning.

People should be allowed to make mistakes. Our children would be unable to walk or do anything else if we did not allow the odd error. However, referencing in scholarly work is often taught implicitly and punished explicitly. Further dehumanisation of the process by using "nan-e-learning" software can only make things worse. Denial of choice prevents the chance to learn how to make the right choices.

If the sole intent of further and higher education is to ensure citation-riddled essays and to measure research by the crude and dubious measure of time on screen, then these kinds of software packages could be very profitable. If our intent is to teach useful skills and to show that we respect, trust and wish to empower our students, we need another way to tackle plagiarism. Any number of citations can be dropped into an essay, but isn't it what the students make of it all that ultimately tests understanding?

The press does not help. No institution wants to admit the state of the problem of plagiarism or attract attention because of the bad press.

Ironically, in the vacuum, poorly researched but headline-grabbing articles abound. Many news articles suggest a newly arisen epidemic - plagiarism is certainly endemic, but this does not make a plague - and they often focus on the latest attempt at crackdown instead of considering why it happens.

Indeed, reporters could examine whether plagiarism is an offence at all, rather than simply a consequence of antiquated assessment or an issue of study skills.

If plagiarism is merely a matter of learning, why can we not talk of it more openly? We should no more punish a two-year-old for not knowing "p" from "d" than first-year students for not knowing how (or why) to cite.

Both are skills that have to be learnt by instruction rather than by example, but we are not showered with sensationalist articles about toddlers' inability to distinguish letters.

Furthermore, the student perspective is rarely represented in its own right; the assumption that plagiarism is necessarily a crime is a reflection of an academic frame of reference. This is perhaps because it is difficult to get students involved - the Joint Information Systems Committee plagiarism steering committee has had a vacancy for a student representative for several years. It has therefore been the role of a few to advocate on their behalf.

The only justifiable reason for seeking to prevent plagiarism is to avoid students stealing learning opportunities from themselves. The real victims of this so-called victimless crime are not the lecturer's ego, nor the lost time involved, nor even the institution's integrity, but the plagiarists.

One suggestion is that students should be able to set the questions themselves. Isn't the current model of education as converting raw material - the student as an empty vessel to be filled, lecturers as oppressors - an exploitation?

We have a vested interest in liberating our students so they can return the favour. As oppressors, we may not do it for ourselves. And our students do not merely have a responsibility to empower themselves, but to help us as well.

Mike Reddy
Member of the experts group and steering committee for the Plagiarism Advisory Service
Joint Information Systems Committee


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