Handling student plagiarism: moving to mainstream

Introduction

I start with what I hope is a relevant digression. This article is a largely personal account of how Oxford Brookes has reacted to the growing level of concern in higher education about student plagiarism. It describes how and why the University has tried to ensure that students comply with academic regulations, especially those concerning the originality and authenticity of the work they submit for assessment. But it starts with a quandary: which referencing strategy would be suitable? Schott (2003) ruminates at some length as to the purpose(s) of references and notes, ‘Writers of scientific texts often write for a comparatively select readership that comprises their peers. Those ”in the know” will appreciate the undercurrents and spot what is being promoted and what is being ignored’ (p. 192). Hunt (2004) has written many articles about the purpose of academic writing and notes that referencing has many functions:

‘Scholars – writers – generally use citations for many things: they establish their own bona fides and currency, they advertise their allegiances, they bring the work of others to the attention of their readers, they assert ties of collegiality, they exemplify contending positions or define nuances of difference among competing theories or ideas. The clearest difference between the way undergraduate students, writing essays, cite and quote and the way scholars and others do it may be stated this way: typically, the scholars are achieving something positive with real readers; the students are avoiding something negative with fake ones.’

Aside from my reluctance to count myself amongst Hunt’s ‘scholars’ or Schott’s insiders, what am I to take from this advice? Which of these many things should I do in a journal aimed largely at my own colleagues? Neither Hunt nor Schott nor the guidelines for authors for this journal nor the large and growing number of websites aimed at students will actually help me answer such questions. (For an especially animated example of one such site, see: http://hsc.uwe.ac.uk/referencing/index2.asp, accessed October, 2004.)

The point of this digression? I have been writing for an academic audience for years yet cannot be sure what to reference. How must it be for our students who are just beginning their understanding of the complexities of academic writing, of referencing and showing it is your own work? And how do we treat the students fairly whilst they are learning to do this? How do we handle their experiments into the implicit, discipline-specific and slippery world of academic conventions and regulations? Finally, how do we at Brookes handle the small but growing number who know what the rules mean and do not comply?

[For the record, I opted for citing when I think the reader would find pursuing the matter interesting or enlightening. I have decided not to cite to show that what I assert is also said by others or to show I have read around the topic.]

Starting out in 2000

Until 2000, Brookes seemed to assume that students entering the institution knew what was expected of them as students. There were regulations and one covered plagiarism. Handbooks mentioned but did not define it. We told students they must not do it and for the few students who did not comply, we asked markers to deal with the case or cases. Usually, the marker selected what action to take and recommended that a few serious cases proceed to the full disciplinary procedure. Perhaps this approach was appropriate at some time in the past. By the late 1990s it was clear this was no longer true. Brookes, like all other universities (Park, 2003) was dealing with a problem that was growing in size and in complexity. The way we handled it was challenging the University’s ability to treat students fairly and consistently, and was alarming the academic staff who marked student work.

By 1999, Brookes made the decision that things needed to change. A working group was appointed, they met, made recommendations, and steered revised policies and procedures through the usual University channels. Now, five years on, we can look back and assess how effective the changes have been. We can track developments of good practice around the University, and look ahead to what still needs to be done to ensure we support and defend the integrity of our awards and the behaviour of both staff and students.

No different from elsewhere

It is important to state that the situation in which Oxford Brookes found itself in 2000 mirrored that found in almost any other higher education institution in Britain. Indeed, you would find similar concerns and actions in most English-speaking countries. For example, small-scale investigations here at Brookes (Errey, 2002; Carroll, 2002) showed that our students were unsure of how they should avoid plagiarism and many others found the same when they asked their own students (Freewood et al., 2003; Bull et al., 2001). Our students worried about the consequences of going astray in the same way that students showed concern elsewhere (Park, 2003). In 2000, all universities would probably have been hard pressed to explain the grounds for decisions made when cases were pursued. Nor could most institutions, Brookes included, explain why students’ experiences with the whole issue of plagiarism varied so widely. Some markers were keen spotters of malpractice whereas others treated the same behaviour as a matter for assessment, deducting marks or giving feedback that stressed referencing. Some, or probably many, simply turned a blind eye to the whole issue. Students at Brookes, as elsewhere, reported that some markers ignored examples in year 1 and came down hard on the same behaviour in year 3. Some made allowances for non-native English speakers, others only detected plagiarism by changes in discourse style which was much easier to spot in some students’ work so international students were more likely to be pulled up. Some explained the rules and provided practice, others just assumed students arrived with the requisite skills.

Our inconsistent practice was matched by equally varied and ad hoc activity across the sector. That is probably one reason why institutions were so reluctant to discuss the matter. Larkham and Manns in 2002 asked institutions to simply share their procedures and most did not even respond. In 2003, the BBC commissioned a national survey of institutional experiences of plagiarism but had little or no information returned, even anonymously. Five of the 31 institutions who responded stated they had not referred a single student for plagiarism in the previous year. This finding, which the journalist acknowledges was not a ‘scientific survey’ could be the result of different meanings for the word ‘referred’ but could also illustrate a very low level of action on the issue.

Here at Brookes, we did not focus on the issue because we suspected that we had no more than our share of the problem. The amount of plagiarism being detected or suspected at Brookes seemed about the same as elsewhere though no one could be sure of the actual size of the problem. This uncertainty remains an issue five years later as there are no wide-scale attempts to determine the size of the problem in the UK though indications from the US and Australia, where relatively large-scale studies have been done, confirm that the problem is growing in size and severity (McCabe, 2003; Caval, 2002). Park (2004) after a wide-ranging summary of the academic literature concludes ‘plagiarism is doubtless common and getting more so’ (p. 217). What made Brookes different in 2000 and continues to be true today is that we have been open and active in discussing and dealing with student plagiarism.

Academic Conduct Officers: one aspect of Brookes

In 2000, we could have started at many different places to address the growing problem of student plagiarism but chose to start with policies and procedures. We stared there because markers were already spotting more cases than could adequately be managed. The then procedures meant that individual members of staff faced a heavy demand on their time if they identified a case, so many were either turning a blind eye or using assessment alone to deal with instances. Although detection and punishment alone would not resolve the issue (Chester, 2002) it was clear that without realistic, efficient and fair ways of handling cases, we could not expect other actions to be effective. A focus on dealing with identified cases seemed a necessary but not sufficient activity.

The solution the working group came up with was the appointment of 17 (later reduced to 14) Academic Misconduct Officers. These officers were later renamed Academic Conduct Officers (or ACOs) to reflect the view that their job was primarily to defend academic integrity rather than to primarily punish offenders. Regulations stated what procedures the ACOs must follow, what penalties they could assign, and what happened in the small number of cases requiring a full disciplinary hearing.

We now have a record of how ACOs have made decisions, what criteria they use to reach a decision, and a growing consensus as to which penalties are appropriate for which kinds of misconduct. This has not been an easy matter as all decisions are contextual. If decision-makers operate independently, it is common for two to see the same circumstances and reach different conclusions based on which factors are seen as most important. Some cases are tremendously complex yet students expect and deserve a fair and transparent explanation of the final result. Consensus between decision-makers has required time spent identifying and weighting different factors and discussing appropriate tariffs. As a result, ACOs can explain and justify the grounds for making their decisions. We continue to monitor and review the statistics and ACOs use school annual reviews to gain feedback on issues and trends for consideration by individual schools.

Though some new ACOs are appointed every year, many have now been in post for long enough to develop expertise in advising staff, in detecting cases, and in recommending changes to school induction or information to students. Several have started small-scale investigations of issues within their own spheres, looking at, for example, whether there are more cases in a students early academic career or whether students with particular characteristics are over-represented in the punishment statistics. Case numbers have risen and the year-on-year increase is also noticeable but we cannot yet tell if this reflects better reporting or if it reflects a general rise in incidence. We will continue to develop, discuss, and evaluate how we are supporting regulations.

Keeping the focus on the big picture

There is a danger that once institutions rethink policies and devise new ways of punishing offenders, they may sit back. A colleague, speaking of his own university told me, ‘xxx changed its policy and that took a year or more and now they think ”that’s it, we’ve fixed plagiarism”’. However, Brookes can point to a range of other activities designed to explain and uphold academic values and to deter students from ignoring their responsibilities. Many departments have organised workshops and discussion forums to raise awareness of the issues. Some individuals have pursued particular issues about plagiarism with personal research, investigating students’ understanding of the regulations, the particular needs of international students, or the impact of professional body requirements on the way cases are handled. But most of the activity has centred on ways to teach students their responsibilities for upholding academic regulations and conventions.

Teaching students the rules of the game

Many schools now include reference to the regulations about plagiarism and many start with what students should do and why before talking about what they must not do and the consequences. This is helpful and indeed, when I did a small follow-up study of 100 students in the then School of Languages at the end of year 1, respondents said that they could remember the session with half describing it in positive terms – ‘informative/helpful’ and half in negative terms ‘alarming’ (Carroll, 2002). Some programmes such as Music have included exercises and activities in the early weeks that let students check out their ideas about citing others and using others’ words. A lecturer in another programme area who gets students trying out activities commented, ‘They all say ”yeah”, they know what plagiarism is but if you scratch the surface, they are confused.’

Early diagnostic activities have also been introduced in some first-year programmes. This kind of activity can show students what they must do and how they must do it, translating generic guidance to fit their particular discipline. For example, the large (750+) introductory module in the Business School has an early assignment that is designed to alert students to how well they are following the rules for citation. Feedback is provided by using templates that single out these issues, stating clearly that the work is not acceptable and telling where they can get help to improve it. For those few who have copied large amounts or clearly not written the text themselves, they must have a recorded conversation with the ACO. The assignment is a small but important part of the module and students cannot, after attending it, say they have not had their attention drawn to these matters.

Other programmes (e.g. Law, Computing, Restaurant Management) take a different approach, building specific skill development into early skills-focused modules. Some have made the student handbook much more explicit and comprehensive, providing students with a guide they can keep by their keyboards as they write. One English student said, ‘I kept that for three years. I could never remember and be sure. I kept having to check.’

Despite these and many other actions, ACOs continue to comment on the low levels of skill shown by many students and we need to continue to develop and widen the number of initiatives.

More consistent action

Annual reports from ACOs continue to stress that most students fail to comply with regulations due to confusion or ignorance but we also have a growing record of students who know what they must not do, yet do it anyway. They download wholesale, pay others to write their work, or use translation programs to convert a text in their own language into English. We are not yet able to say with confidence that our detection methods are sufficiently robust to deal with this growing problem. Widening the ways in which we detect beyond just looking for a change in discourse style may help. Accessing electronic detection certainly will help as it allows for searches from the internet, previously submitted work, and a huge database of text-based publications. Tools for detecting collusion may help. However, the most useful approach might be to ensure a consistent commitment to detection. We can show that some areas of the University record significant numbers of cases, and others few or none. We cannot yet explain why this is so, though we can agree that many explanations are possible. We know that the levels of cheating and confusion change as students progress but cannot be sure that we are dealing fairly with students in the later stages of their programmes who may not yet have gotten the message that they must comply with regulations. We can see that some groups of students are more likely to be represented in punishment statistics but cannot be sure why this is so.

The way forward

Action and attention at Oxford Brookes continues. Student plagiarism will probably never go away and indeed, as the internet grows, opportunities for passing off work that is not your own will probably continue to expand. It is likely that the growth will not be as rapid as the change between 1999, when 13% of students responding to a questionnaire said they regularly used ‘cut-and-paste’ text without attribution, and in 2001, when 41% said they did so (McCabe, 2003). Plagiarism will certainly never be completely prevented though there will probably always be a stream of media pundits who suggest simple ways to solve the problem. In the first six months of 2004, articles and commentators had the following ‘solutions’:

  • ‘Make paper mills and ghost writing services illegal’
  • ‘Ban mothers from helping with kids’ homework’
  • ‘Require students to use a programme that logs all the web sites they visit and produces a weekly record for the lecturer to inspect’
  • ‘Expel one person as an example to others’
  • ‘Just tell students what they should do’.

The challenge for everyone, including Oxford Brookes, is to continue to view the problem as complex, requiring many actions to address it. We can now point to real and effective ways in which Oxford Brookes is addressing the worries of staff and students and the world at large.

Contact Details

Jude Carroll
Staff Developer and Course Leader
Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development
Oxford Brookes University
Wheatley Campus
Oxford OX33 1HX
Telephone: 01865 485827
Fax: 01865 485937

References:

Bull, J., Collins, C., Coughlin, E., and Sharpe, D. (2001), Technical Review of Plagiarism Detection Software Repor,

http://www.jisc.ac.uk/pub01/luton.pdf, July 2002.

Caval Collaborative Solutions (2002), Victorian Vice-Chancellors Electronic Plagiarism Detection Pilot Project: Member Project Report, Melbourne: Caval Collaborative Solutions, September 2002.

Carroll, J. and Appleton, J. (2001), Plagiarism: a good practice guide, on jiscpas website.

http://www.jisc.ac.uk/pub01.brookes.pdf, July, 2002.

Carroll, J. (2002), Deterring student plagiarism: where best to start?, In Rust, C. (ed.), Improving Student Learning Symposium, Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford Brookes University.

Errey, L. (2002), Plagiarism. Something fishy or just a fish out of water?, Teaching Forum for Oxford Brookes University, 50, pp. 17-20.

Freewood, M., MacDonald, R. and Ashworth, P. (2003), Why simply policing plagiarism is not the answer, In Rust, C. (ed.), Improving student learning theory and practice 10 years on, Oxford: OCSLD.

Larkham, P. J. and Manns, S. (2002), Plagiarism and its treatment in higher education, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 26(4), pp. 341-349.

MacDonald, R. and Carroll, J. (in press), Plagiarism a complex issue requiring a holistic institutional approach.

McCabe, D. (2003), Promoting academic integrity: a US/Canadian perspective in Educational integrity: plagiarism and other perplexities, the proceedings of the Australian Educational Integrity Conference, University of South Australia, 21-22 November 2003.

Park, C. (2003), In other (peoples) words: plagiarism by university students literature and lessons, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 28 (5), pp. 471-488.

Park, C. (2004), Rebels without a clause: towards an institutional framework for dealing with plagiarism by students, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 28 (3), pp. 291-306.

Schott, G. (2003), The reference: more than a buttress of the scientific edifice, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 96.

Jude Carroll

Jude Carroll worked for several decades at Oxford Brookes University, where she took on a wide range of responsibilities linked to professional development of teachers, developing specialisms in managing student plagiarism and in effective teaching of international students. In 2009, Jude was awarded a National Teaching.  Between 2005-2008, Jude was Deputy Director of the ASKe centre for excellence in assessment standards. She is the author of A Handbook for Deterring Plagiarism in Higher Education (OCSLD, 2nd edition 2007), was co-editor of Teaching International Students: improving learning for all (Routledge 2005) and is the author of Tools for Teaching in an educationally mobile world (Routledge 2015).  Jude currently works as an independent consultant with many universities around the world.

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