Turning a blind eye to plagiarism

Research shows a quarter of students plagiarise whilst at university. | Photo: Anneka James
Research shows a quarter of students plagiarise whilst at university. | Photo: Anneka James

Studies suggest as many as a quarter of students plagiarise, but figures show hardly any students at Lincoln are punished for cheating this way.

Hundreds or even thousands of University of Lincoln students may be getting away with plagiarising work each year, after figures released by the university have raised question marks over its ability to deal with the problem.

A Freedom of Information request from The Linc found that between academic years 2003/04 and 2008/09 the university has made formal allegations of plagiarism against under 0.2 percent of students.

The university has formally investigated just 184 students for plagiarism. In this time, the number of allegations totalled 203, as some students may have been accused of more than one offence, and the total of proven cases was 163.

The average detection of plagiarism detection nationally is just 0.72%, according to the Amber project report from 2008, produced by Higher Education Academy/Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC).

Past research on rates of plagiarism suggest that as many as 25% of students might plagiarise while at university. A study, conducted in 2004 by research company Freshminds found that around 16% of recent graduates admitted passing off other people’s work as their own on a number of occasions, and around 9% said they had plagiarised once.

One reason for the lack of for­­­mal cases of recorded plagiarism at the university is that academic staff may be lenient on offenders.
One former University of Lincoln student recalls one such case: “In my last year at university, one of my friends was caught plagiarising in her dissertation, she was just informally warned and told to rewrite the offending parts. There was no real punishment.”

Jude Carroll, a leading plagiarism expert and a member of academic staff at Oxford Brookes University, says that dealing with cases of plagiarism informally is not unusual and not necessarily the wrong thing to do. She points out that her university deals with plagiarism in a similar way: “Most cases are managed well below that level of disciplinary action. In my own university, we handle almost 100 cases for every one that goes to the full disciplinary board.”

Carroll, who has written books and given lectures on dealing with plagiarism for over a decade, explains that she believes the gap between those that say they plagiarise, and those cases that are formally dealt with, highlights how complex it is to collect data on this subject and make sense of it. She also points out that there are other steps needed to stop and deter plagiarism that don’t offer such a “sexy” message as catch and punish solutions, such as plagiarism software.

She says: “In my view, identifying cases is not the tough part. Many universities process huge numbers of scripts. The Open University processes more than 150,000 every year. Scaling up the use of tools like Turnitin [a plagiarism-detection website] is easy — dealing with the consequences is more difficult.”

Richard Keeble, a journalism lecturer at the University of Lincoln, agrees with Carroll, arguing that while catching plagiarism is important, deterring it from happening in the first place is equally so. While Professor Keeble does believe that plagiarism detection software is extremely useful, he also says that there’s a responsibility on staff to structure units and assessments with plagiarism in mind.

“I believe in seen exams and presentations. Seen exams, where the exam questions are given before the exam, provide the challenge of researching, learning, synthesising the information, and remembering, all under unthreatening conditions,” Professor Keeble said.

He goes on to explain that these two forms of assessment, are both difficult to plagiarise and mean the focus is on assessing what you know rather than what you don’t, as is the case with traditional unseen exams.

Despite the success and his experience with his assessment techniques, he does concede that not all academic staff follow this way of teaching.
Professor Keeble says that he is keen for other academic colleagues to adopt similar teaching styles, because of both the impact he feels it has on plagiarism and the belief that it enhances the learning experience for students.

Although it is difficult to know exactly how many students are actually plagiarising and how many cases are being dealt with informally, Anne Flood, an academic advisor for Plagiarism Advice, claims that universities are taking the issue seriously.

Flood says: “From our personal experience, there is no definite evidence to suggest that universities are failing to catch plagiarists. Indeed, our experience is that universities are taking a more proactive approach to ensure that student work is authentic.”

One Response to Turning a blind eye to plagiarism

  1. Max Weetman says:

    Do the academic staff plagiarise?