The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

2.5 Deterring and preventing plagiarism

The distinction between deterrence and prevention is, perhaps, not always clear. It is suggested that the former may be associated with the creation of a (perhaps, Utopian) environment where students never feel motivated to plagiarise; the latter creates an environment where, regardless of the motivation, the chances of detection and punishment are uncomfortably high.

While many universities around the world would probably claim that their publicly stated policies and procedures will act as a deterrent to any student contemplating plagiarism, their publication alone is unlikely to cut any sway with would-be plagiarists. In North America, however, the punitive systems in place to discredit plagiarists tend to be an integral part of university-wide honour codes that, effectively implemented, can make students think long and hard about engaging in plagiarism. These university 'honour codes' have a long history, and they are treated very seriously by the authorities. (See, for example, those listed at the Center for Academic Integrity website (last accessed 12 June 2004).)

Recent events at the University of Virginia, one the oldest and most respected universities in the USA, have certainly cast a shadow of doubt over the efficacy of 'honour codes'. When Professor Lou Bloomfield tested his plagiarism detection software on 1,850 introductory physics papers at the University of Virginia in April 2001, the result sent shock-waves throughout the university community and beyond. The program found no fewer than 122 suspect papers and Bloomfield had no hesitation in handing over all the cases to the University of Virginia's Honor Committee (see Schemo, 2001). This might have been less of an issue were it not for the fact that, since 1842, the University of Virginia has benefited from the ethical standards set out in its Honor System, generally regarded as one of the university's most noteworthy and respected traditions. Lying, cheating and stealing are not tolerated and any student found guilty of such an offence is, without exception, dismissed permanently from the university. (See the Honor Committee website at the University of Virginia: http://www.virginia.edu/honor (last accessed 12 June 2004).)

Such a flagrant violation of an 'honour code' as celebrated as that of the University of Virginia surely begs the question as to the whether measures such as this have become an anachronism. Some commentators believe this is not the case, and argue instead that it is time for institutions to recommit themselves to a tradition of academic integrity and honour. Indeed, the available data do suggest that cheating at institutions with honour codes is significantly lower than at institutions without codes. The key, they argue, is that it must be a topic of on-going discussion, and by stressing the privileges afforded to students, a culture is created whereby unethical behaviour becomes socially unacceptable among students, and little sympathy will be extended to those who receive heavy penalties for attempting to beat the system (McCabe and Trevino, 2002).

Top Tips

  • Ensure that assessment construction minimises the ease with which plagiarism can be both difficult to resist by the student and difficult for staff to detect.
  • Be flexible in allowing extensions to deadlines if you are convinced that the only alternative would be to receive a plagiarised submission.
  • Overall, consider coordinating the timing of assignments in conjunction with other subjects, with a view to avoiding 'peakloading'.

The ability to analyse problems critically is not in abundance among those who elect to plagiarise material from the internet or from their peers, and as the discussion in the sections above demonstrates, the policing of this kind of activity can be a time-consuming business.

Formal tuition in the art of critical thinking is certainly a way forward, but this will not be time well spent if, subsequently, students are not presented with adequate opportunity to apply this important generic skill. All too often, assignments and examination questions are set that encourage the reproduction of content knowledge rather than critical appreciation of that content knowledge. Generally speaking, this tends to be a reflection of module design that is driven primarily by content considerations and where assessment is very much of an afterthought, rather than the other way around. In short, to be effective, assessment must be authentic: it must mean something to the student, so it will engage them and add value to their skill set.

As scholars such as Ramsden (1992) have argued, the quality of students' understanding is intimately related to the quality of their engagement with learning tasks. Setting tasks that test their memories or their ability to reproduce content material is not particularly engaging, and this is precisely what many assessment items require the same assessment items that, coincidentally, lend themselves very well to cutting-and-pasting techniques.

A pertinent question to ask is whether students are entirely to blame for the plagiarism problem that plagues our universities. The study conducted by Ashworth et al. (1997) would suggest not. They conclude that cheating might be looked upon as a symptom of some general malaise. They found that students felt alienated from teaching staff because of their demeanour and their lack of contact with students. Assessment tasks that fail to engage students are a symbol of this gap between students and lecturers, and in the absence of any basic commitment on the part of the student that the work they are doing is significant, there is no moral imperative to refrain from plagiarism or cheating.

The point is that while one cannot 'turn a blind eye' to students' plagiarism, it would be fatuous to assume that it is the students who are at fault and the students alone. Could it be that students are cheating because they do not value the opportunity of learning in university classes? Is it conceivable that the pedagogy currently employed has not adjusted to contemporary circumstances? As one author has observed, 'we expect authentic writing from our students, yet we do not write authentic assignments for them' (Howard, 2002). It is worth considering why this might be so: one argument is that the everincreasing pressure on academics to teach, research and administer reduces the time for creating imaginative and otherwise difficult-to-plagiarise (for example, individualised) assignments. As a consequence, there is much anecdotal evidence that academics are retreating back to the unseen, written examination as the sole method of assessing student performance in their courses.

Top Tips

  • Create an explicit focus on learning outcomes students need to see the point of what they are doing.
  • Design assessments that motivate students on the basis of the quality of their learning and the generic skills they acquire rather than the content they memorise.
  • Design assessments where the learning experience is truly authentic, suitably contextualised, completed within a suitably limited time period and as specific to the university course unit as possible.
  • Encourage students to roleplay and 'suspend disbelief' in assignments, so that they develop a much greater empathy for the subject matter (Chancellor of the Exchequer, CEO, etc.).
  • Include the mandatory use of assignment cover sheets that incorporate signed declarations of originality.
  • With an assignment that is to be submitted electronically, use pop-up confirmations about the conditions that a student is agreeing to when they upload their assignment (see the appendices to this chapter for examples of each).

As the literature on authentic assessment reveals, it is solidly based on constructivism, and acknowledges the learner as the chief architect of knowledge building (see, for example, Herrington and Herrington, 1998). It is a form of assessment that fosters understanding of learning processes in terms of real-life performance as opposed to a display of inert knowledge. The student is presented with real-world challenges that require them to apply their relevant skills and knowledge, rather than select from predetermined options, as is the case with multiple-choice tests, for example. Importantly, it is an approach that engages students because the task is something for which they will have an empathy, which, as the empirical evidence suggests, elicits deeper learning.

The key, therefore, is to set meaningful, situational questions relating to reallife, contemporary problems that engage students in the learning process. By making assignments as module-specific as possible (to prevent students from purchasing pre-written papers or paying outsiders to write answers), and by the examiners making it clear (as a stated objective of the module unit) that they are looking to reward evidence of depth of learning and sound critical analysis rather than recall of content knowledge, assignments are effectively cheat-proofed although we must always be mindful of the increasing resource constraints placed upon academics.

Top Tips

  • Exercise a firm commitment to authentic assessments that have the effect of minimising the extent of assignment recycling, even to the point where every assessment item is unique.
  • Seek to encourage departmental co-ordination in a commitment to authentic assessment as a strategy to combat student plagiarism. In this way, students can see there is a synchronised departmental effort to change the way that learning is assessed, and that there is consistency of treatment when it comes to meting out penalties for plagiarism offences.

Something of a paradigm shift is likely to be required if the changes described above are to be readily embraced by the majority of teachers in the higher education sector. However, it is worth mentioning that the various ICTs, used effectively, may well assist in this endeavour. Indeed, one could make the point that if as much energy and ingenuity went into developing new and exciting online devices for the purposes of facilitating assessment as there have been devoted to online devices for the detection of plagiarism, then maybe there would be fewer obstacles to negotiate.

In summary, while there is clearly a need to allocate some resources to detection and deterrence, these are essentially reactionary strategies. The proactive measure is the prevention of plagiarism through innovative pedagogy, as this is more likely to produce lasting results. Such an approach provides students with an incentive to learn. The natural corollary to this is that there will be less incentive for students to resort to plagiarism.

Top Tips

  • Make it a requirement of assessment submissions that outlines and first drafts be submitted on specified dates in the lead-up to the final submission date. This means that the process of producing an assignment is evaluated as well as the final product (Carroll, 2002). This may not prevent some students copying from one another along the way, but it will thwart those individuals who look to produce the finished product while doing very little work themselves.
  • Require students to submit a reflective journal describing their approach to the task, the methodology adopted, the problems encountered and how they resolved these problems.
  • Hold random viva voce sessions that require students to defend and further explain, if necessary, what they have written. If this is clearly advertised to students in class and in course documentation, it will serve as an effective deterrent.