The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

1 Introduction

Charles Caleb Colton once observed that 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery'. Whilst this may be apt in many instances, there is a point in the intellectual space where imitation is more akin to theft. This is certainly the case in the higher education sector where, in the internet age, the increasing incidence of student plagiarism has become a cause of concern.

Plagiarism may be defined as the use of another person's words and/or ideas without acknowledging that the ideas and/or words belong to someone else. It is not a new phenomenon, nor is it something exclusive to the discipline of economics, but there is little doubt that it is a growing problem that lecturers need to address systematically if the underlying causes, rather than the symptoms, are to be addressed. At the heart of the problem is the increasing availability of easily accessible electronic resources in recent times, whereupon it has become so much easier for students to 'cut and paste' slabs of unedited text. This can sometimes lead to assignments being submitted that are inadequately referenced, highly unfocused or, worse still, largely or entirely someone else's work.

This chapter considers the various strategies currently being employed to stamp out plagiarism. These include the use of 'honour codes' that incorporate punitive systems to discredit plagiarists, and the various proprietary and freeware packages available for the electronic detection of plagiarism. The discussion will concentrate, first of all, on the defining characteristics of plagiarism and how it manifests itself in the current university environment. This is followed by a brief discussion on the factors deemed to be responsible for plagiarism, and the mechanisms subsequently employed by various institutions to deal with its increasing incidence. The discussion concludes by arguing for an integrated approach founded upon a commitment to assessment regimes that reward critical analysis rather than content regurgitation. To proceed down this path, it is further argued that assessment items need to be designed in such a way as to present students with authentic learning environments: that is, settings for assessment that engage students with real and relevant tasks, with palpable and practical learning outcomes. Of all disciplines, economics is one that readily lends itself to this approach.

The main aim of the discussion, therefore, is to demonstrate that, while introducing measures to improve deterrence and detection of plagiarism is important, this is essentially a reactionary approach that is unlikely to yield lasting benefits. It is argued that the source of the problem is systemic, and that the focus needs to be on prevention of plagiarism through the use of innovative and engaging assessment. To this end, it is further posited that information and communications technologies (ICTs) can be of invaluable assistance the very technologies that have led to the burgeoning student plagiarism problem in the first place.