Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Plagiarism again

The evidence is mounting that large numbers of UK students are plagiarising from the internet, and that Michael Gunn was merely an extreme example of a worrying trend. I had very little sympathy for Gunn, and still do. But I went on record somewhere to somebody's blog with the naive belief that he was a rarity. I was clearly wrong. Add this to the situation revealed in Mum, will you write my dissertation? (via PhD Weblogs), and it becomes clear that there are some out-and-out, deliberate cheats out there, but equally there are many students who are extremely fuzzy in their minds about what constitutes cheating in the first place.

You don't have to teach history undergrads for long to discover that some (certainly not all), no matter how many times you spell it out, do not understand footnoting. They do it, kind of, but badly and perfunctorily and without any discernible system for formatting the notes. And you strongly suspect that they've never read the departmental handbook - or any of the other booklets and handouts that we go to the trouble of preparing, either - where they might learn these things as well as seeing the bold-type page on plagiarism. They don't really care, they can't be bothered. They are the scraping-a-lower-second coasters; they have no real ambitions, they're just getting through their (increasingly expensive) three years because it's pretty much expected of middle-class kids rather than because they really want to be here. (And is it just me or are most of them male?)

Even if they know that it's wrong to buy other people's essays whole, or to copy chunks out of published history books, it does seem that students often think that cutting-and-pasting from the internet is somehow different. (Perhaps they just know that they're less likely to get caught.) Actually, I suspect that cut-and-paste isn't necessarily that easy an option; unless a student is lucky enough to find long chunks that match the set essay question, they have to select the right bits to cut and weave them together to make anything like a coherent discussion. (I do wonder if, rather than a wish to steal other people's ideas, is this sometimes in fact about stealing the writing itself, by students for whom the real difficulty is communicating on paper the perfectly good ideas that they have?)

The good thing is that according to the poll of students reported by The Guardian, 75 per cent said they had never cheated, and only 16 per cent had cheated more than once. It's more than a few rotten apples, but it could be a lot worse. As long as they were telling the truth, of course. Yet it does seem that if we're to get to the bottom of the causes of plagiarism we do need to get out there and ask students about it themselves. For some, it seems to have been a simple, practical matter of lack of time. And - guess what - the poll also found that boys were more likely to cheat than girls...

Anyway, we're going to have to get more sophisticated at catching internet plagiarism, that's for sure. (A three-day conference has just been taking place on precisely these issues.) We're also probably going to have to spell it out that this form of plagiarism is no different from any other. It shouldn't need saying, but there you go.

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