The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

Given the ubiquity of the internet, it has become impossible to discuss undergraduate dissertations without also discussing the greater opportunities for student plagiarism. The internet provides students with access to a vast range of material, and anecdotal evidence suggests that many students arrive at university with at best a sketchy understanding of methods of scholarship and standards of academic integrity.

Inculcating a sense of what constitutes academic integrity at an early stage in the degree programme is critical. This approach – stressing that there are expected standards for student work – is to be preferred to instructing students simply to ‘avoid plagiarism’. The notion of avoiding plagiarism is almost tantamount to telling students not to get caught, whereas setting expected standards is a more positive tack to take.

The importance of academic integrity is reflected in the fact that there is a whole chapter in this Handbook by Jeremy Williams devoted to the topic. The detail of this discussion will not be repeated here, where the focus will be on academic integrity in the dissertation.

Jeremy Williams identifies three types of plagiarist. The ‘lazy plagiarist’ takes the work of another author and puts his or her own name to it, and may use a ‘cheat’ site in order to purchase a dissertation or part thereof. The ‘cunning plagiarist’ uses the work of another author or authors, but changes things sufficiently to avoid detection. ‘Cut-and-paste’ characterises this approach. The ‘accidental plagiarist’ does not even realise that they are plagiarising – for example, they may have taken notes on a journal article in the early stages of their research without realising that they were simply noting down the original author’s words. They then construct their dissertation from those notes. In some cases, students from a Confucian tradition may believe that in reproducing the words of the experts they are paying them a compliment, and may find it culturally difficult to criticise or even amend what has been printed in a textbook. The use of anti-plagiarism software will throw up examples of all three types.

In the email survey of UK economics departments, most made use of TurnitinUK as a way of identifying whether plagiarism has taken place. The convenience of this is that a dissertation submitted via a VLE can be automatically screened for overlap with TurnitinUK’s growing database. The disadvantage is that the output produced by the software requires very careful interpretation. The software produces a Similarity Index (SI), which quantifies the degree of overlap with material in the database. A high SI does not necessarily indicate plagiarism, but it does help to highlight which dissertation submissions are suspicious.

An important practical point to remember is that when students submit their dissertation they should not only be asked to sign a declaration stating that the work is their own, but also that they understand what is meant by academic integrity and that their dissertation will be checked by TurnitinUK.

Sample declaration for students to sign on submission:

I understand that by signing the declaration below, I have read and accepted the following statements:

  • I have read and understood the University’s Academic Integrity Statement for Students, including the information on practice to avoid given the Statement and that in the attached submission I have worked within the expectations of this Statement.
  • I am aware that failure to act in accordance with the Academic Integrity Statement for Students may lead to the imposition of penalties which, for the most serious cases, may include termination of the programme.

I consent to the University copying and distributing any or all of my work in any form and using third parties (who may be based outside the EU/EEA). This may include the use of anti-plagiarism software (e.g. TurnitinUK) to verify whether my work contains plagiarised material, and for quality assurance purposes.

Perhaps more valuable than its diagnostic properties is the deterrent value of TurnitinUK. The very fact that all dissertations are to be screened may encourage students to take care in their work. If this does not suffice, then a practical demonstration may be effective.

Encouraging good academic practice

Find a brief paper written by a member of staff in the department and submit it to TurnitinUK. Then hack the article about. Include some quotations (some with, some without quotation marks), paraphrase some passages, introduce some new material. Submit the revised version to TurnitinUK.

Arrange a session for all students writing a dissertation, and show them the TurnitinUK output on the amended version. Let them see what we see as examiners. Point out the key examples of bad practice that we can readily recognise.

This exercise can have a dramatic effect. In one academic year, I (as the School’s Academic Integrity Officer) had to investigate 10 breaches of academic integrity in economics dissertations. Penalties were imposed in all cases. The following year, having demonstrated the examiner’s eye view of the TurnitinUK output, not one single case emerged.

More difficult to detect is where students commission a third party to produced their dissertation for them – either to order, or off the peg from subscription websites. TurnitinUK may or may not identify these cases, although I have known one case where the dissertation that had been purchased was picked up because some paragraphs from it were used as an advert on the website, and were thus caught by TurnitinUK. The risks of being caught may be lower for this form of cheating – but the penalties are likely to be more severe.

An important part of the fight for academic integrity is to make sure that all supervisors are familiar with your university’s procedures for dealing with breaches of academic integrity, and with how to interpret the TurnitinUK output. This is a key part of ensuring consistency in supervision and equity of treatment across students. It is wise to make sure that the general principles of academic integrity are covered in joint sessions to all students, rather than this being left as part of the responsibility of the individual supervisor. Student handbooks also need to carry clear guidance on your institution’s policies and procedures.

More discussion on academic integrity may be found in the Handbook chapter by Jeremy Williams.