Turn-it-off: Making use of ubiquitous plagiarism to facilitate academic skills
While asking why writers plagiarize might seem to be a fool’s quest, it can actually be very helpful in preventing future plagiarisms. After all, if we assume it isn’t just the “evil” that plagiarize, it makes sense to take a moment and figure out what would make a “good” person commit such a deed.
In our cut and paste culture, even if it is not actually the case, it sometimes seems that we are being overwhelmed by a plague of plagiarism, not just in academia but in all walks of life (e.g. Scroth, 2012). The current popularity of tools like Turnitin in higher education suggests that what started out as a solution in search of a problem may have opened a Pandora’s box in which our notions of academic honesty and integrity are called into question by the behaviour of our students. In fact, the ubiquity of electronic counter-measures have given rise to counter-counter-measures (e.g. Rogerson & McCarthy, 2017) which make marking essays more of an exercise in forensic science rather than an educational process.
My earliest encounter with student plagiarism came in my first year as a university teacher during the Analogue Age. My initial response comprised of two elements; anger and vanity. I was enraged by the act of cheating itself and amazed that the two students in question thought that I would be stupid enough not to know what they had done. Three decades later I still feel those two emotions when confronted with plagiarism.
However, amongst my feelings was a third element: curiosity. Before deciding on disciplinary action I sat down with the two students and asked why they had risked their university careers in such stupid and easily discovered ways.
The first explained that he simply had no idea how to write a university essay and hoped that copying large chunks from a course text might suffice. The second student said something far more telling. He had plagiarised, he said, because he simply had not understood the content of my lectures. He had ‘borrowed’ an essay submitted to my predecessor in the belief that I would interpret the vast improvement in his academic work as a tribute to my pedagogic skills. The latter explanation troubled me far more than the former and in many ways shaped my approach to teaching for the next 30 years by setting me on a journey of becoming what we now call a ‘reflective teacher’. A journey, I might add, which has yet to reach its terminus.
On foot of these discussions, I chose not to pursue formal disciplinary action. I permitted both students to re-submit with the proviso that they would receive a minimum passing grade irrespective of the quality of their work. I then set out to see if I could develop an approach that would obviate the need for plagiarism by my students in the first place.
One outcome of this was a small pamphlet called ‘Essay Writing Made Easy’ (Greenslade, 1983/2001). This may not seem much by modern standards of student support, but in the 1980s, when students were expected to arrive with, or very quickly acquire, the necessary cultural capital and skills (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977) to succeed at university, it was an almost unique resource. Thereafter I distributed it to my students at the start of every unit I taught with the warning that I would expect them to read and make use of its content in their written work or face the consequences.
At the same time, without moving too far away from the traditional model of ‘chalk and talk’ pedagogy, I began to devote less time to delivering large quantities of information and more time checking that learning had actually taken place.
Both strategies appeared to work well. Over the next 25 years detected cases of plagiarism amongst my students were few and far between and the feedback I received on my teaching was generally positive, or so I like to think.
I should point out, however, that during this period I was teaching in well-resourced, elite institutions in the U.K. and Ireland. My students were super-selected and/or highly motivated, staff-student ratios were low, and the values and aspirations associated with academic culture were usually well-respected. Under such conditions, opting for deterrence with a student-centred approach to teaching was not onerous and it often surprised me that more of my colleagues didn’t do it.
What have they done to my song…
When I returned to the U.K. a few years ago I found myself teaching in an environment which I barely recognised. Pay and conditions had worsened, far more teaching was being undertaken by postgrads or adjuncts on zero hours contracts with no time to devote to development of students, course materials or their own teaching skills. The number of working class, mature, and overseas entrants had increased significantly. More importantly, students were now fee-paying customers who wanted value for their money. Value measured in term of qualifications, grade point averages, and almost exclusively instrumental relations between learning experience and learning outcomes.
If this sounds to you like I am suffering from an old don’s nostalgia for the halcyon days of academia, then you’re wrong. What was good about the ivory tower of elitist higher education was paid for at a terrible cost in wasted potential, complacent over-privilege, and massive social exclusion. But, opting for a bums-on-seats model of growth without much modifying the structure and content of the old elitist system inevitably has consequences. One of which, in my experience, is an exponential growth in plagiarism particularly amongst those students who arrive less prepared for the traditional British university experience.
I found increasingly that the learning support materials I was producing and the efforts I was putting into helping students to develop their academic and intellectual skills were simply not working to deter plagiarism. Despite my efforts many of my students simply didn’t wish to consider the importance of how they learned and its relationship to what they learned in a university context. Or, perhaps more accurately, they felt that they didn’t have the time to waste on such irrelevancies.
In my last university teaching post, leading a pre-Master’s research methods module in which all of the students were from overseas, rates of plagiarism could be as high as 60 percent in some semesters. The methods employed ranged from the ‘accidental’ (e.g. failing to cite sources or indicate quotations properly) to out and out cheating and with each new semester I was confronted (and affronted) by novel attempts to game the system by getting around Turnitin.
Students would aim for the Holy Grail of a 0% score without recognising that such a score was itself indicative of plagiarism in my eyes. So a zero would always provoke further investigation and students were warned that this would occur.
Turnitin – zero sum?
I found that some essay providers would tweak or fabricate references, for example, to satisfy their student-clients’ demand for zero or negligible scores. Or they would plunder papers published in sources not available on-line. In one instance, a feasibility study for an air ambulance service in Scotland was published originally in Norway, with the former nation substituted in the text for the latter throughout.
Over time I formed the view that Turnitin was less useful as a plagiarism tool than its marketing would have us believe. Many students and some colleagues were engaged in a futile fetishism focussed on percentages and were using it as a blunt force tool for catching out lazy or dishonest students and that essay mills were exploiting this. More commonly in my experience, it dispirited students who lacked confidence or had a poor command of academic English and academic style. Moreover, a certain proportion of students seemed to delight in the challenge that getting around Turnitin presented. Used this way, it was educationally self-defeating.
Faced with this, I decided to alter fundamentally my approach to deterrence. Rather than teach as if plagiarism was a form of wholly unacceptable moral deviance, I began to embrace the idea that it was ubiquitous. I acknowledged openly that, largely because the pressures of time and money on them and their lecturers, many, if not most, of my students would consider and possibly commit plagiarism at some point in their academic career. The changed context of higher education had made it a viable choice for many students who despaired of ever writing something ‘in their own words’ that would compare with the original source.
Rather than address plagiarism as a moral issue, I located it in a pragmatic context. If I could not dissuade them on moral and intellectual grounds, I would persuade them that it was simply a waste of energy. I began by devoting some time to showing them how ridiculously easy it was to be caught out (with or without Turnitin). Then I focussed on both the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of referencing, citation, quotation, paraphrasing in a way that was not shrouded by academic or linguistic mystique. Finally, I tried to explore with them how the tools used to catch them out could be used to improve their ability to produce academically acceptable work even with the pressure of deadlines.
How to plagiarise
Sessions entitled ‘How to Plagiarise’, ‘How to write an essay in 24 hours’, ‘How to lower your Turnitin score without cheating’ and ‘The Harvard Referencing Game’ proved popular. I used Turnitin, paraphrasing tools, and other on-line plagiarism checkers as creative means to get students to think about the processes involved their writing. These efforts seemed to have an impact on the way my students approached their written work. As a bonus, the incidence of plagiarism certainly dropped in the year I introduced this approach. To what extent my approach might be a panacea on a wider scale I cannot say.
So what can individuals involved in learning development on a day-to-day basis learn from this? I’m not at all sure. I do know that under present socio-economic conditions academic integrity and intellectual honesty are severely threatened. When jobs and futures are at stake moralities have a way of becoming flexible, to say the least. I have suggested that it is possible to take a contentious issue like that of student plagiarism and turn it on its head by working on the basis of what students may be likely to do rather than what we as educators would like them to do. Furthermore, I would insist that tools used to catch them out can and should be used as tools to help them to achieve the standards we require of them.
Bailey J (2017) Five reasons people plagiarise and how to stop them Plagiarism Today 15th February 2017 Available at https://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2017/02/15/5-reasons-people-plagiarize-and-how-to-stop-them/ Accessed 12/3/17
Bourdieu P Passeron J-C (1977) Reproduction in education society and culture London: Sage
Greenslade L (1983/2001) Essay writing made easy Available at https://issuu.com/liamg/docs/essay_writing_made_easy. Accessed 1/3/17
Rogerson AM McCarthy G (2017) Using Internet based paraphrasing tools: Original work, patchwriting or facilitated plagiarism? International Journal for Educational Integrity 13:2 Available at https://edintegrity.springeropen.com/articles/10.1007/s40979-016-0013-y Accessed 24/2/17
Scroth RA (2012) The Plagiarism Plague: Declining standards make getting caught the primary offense America: The Jesuit Review 14th May 2012 Available on-line at http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/5140/article/plagiarism-plague (Accessed 20/3/17)
Liam Greenslade is a social scientist who has worked at number of universities in the UK and Ireland including Manchester, Liverpool, Trinity College Dublin, and Birkbeck College. A specialist in social research methods, he has published numerous articles on migration, health, mental health, and cultural theory. He is currently developing a project The Dissertation Doctor (https://www.dissertationdoc.co.uk/), which is a support service for students undertaking research projects and dissertations in the social sciences and humanities.