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Students must be taught to engage in academic writing, not to fear the Spanish Inquisition of plagiarism detection

Jan McArthur argues that plagiarism detection software is no substitute for teaching students how to engage critically with academic literature
This article is more than 2 years old

Jan McArthur is senior lecturer in education and social justice in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University.

A regular Monty Python sketch used to involve two characters in clerical robes who would appear at odd times and in unusual places to declare “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition”.

The irony behind the joke being that in the real times of the Spanish Inquisition people did indeed expect it: they lived in constant fear of being caught out doing something the clerical officials declared wrong and offensive.

Too often our approaches to academic writing promote a sense that the most important thing a student can achieve is not to be accused of plagiarism.

From the descriptions in course handbooks, the warning talk during freshers week, to the highly flawed software used, every message we send students about academic writing is counter-productive and anti-educational.

Instilling a fear of being caught plagiarising undermines the centrality of academic work engaging with the minds of others. All that matters is not being caught doing something wrong, however unintentional, and however much the student does not actually understand this boundary of right and wrong.

Pleasing the software

What does the word plagiarism mean, given the enormous negative emotional baggage that follows it? Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work as if it is your own.

We have industrialised anti-plagiarism approaches by handing over much of the responsibility to a piece of expensive software. The software-generated “originality” score gives a percentage of how much of the piece of work uses text from other sources and how much is the student’s own.

Students please the software, and therefore avoid getting in trouble, by getting a “good” originality score. The originality score has no measure of whether other sources are properly referenced: it is therefore rather an imposter in the field of discouraging plagiarism.

But across this country, many institutions have policies to automatically refer something for plagiarism checking if the originality score reaches 20 per cent or some other purely arbitrary figure. Even though this percentage score tells us nothing about whether or not the works of others have been referenced properly.

I know that skilled academics often then look at the originality score and check the piece of work to see whether citations are properly done. But by then the damage is done. From the moment a student first picks up their course handbook, they know that the biggest thing to worry about is getting caught for plagiarism or academic misconduct: and all this focuses on that originality score which itself has no fundamental connection to real plagiarism.

One justification for using this software is that its use can be formative – to teach good academic writing and citation practices. This logic is fundamentally flawed from the moment we accept a system that makes the erroneous link between referencing mistakes and what we call plagiarism.

We need to separate the proper encouragement of good citation practices, arising from rich engagement with the academic literature, from fears of being caught plagiarising. We have been sold a con that the two are related, when rarely is this the case.

Any plagiarism officer knows that only a small proportion of those students who are “caught” were master criminals setting out to cheat. They are often confused students, students who have been sloppy recording references, or students who ran out of time. Or students who just don’t understand the “rules of the game”.

But there is our very problem. We present academic writing as being about the rules of the game – a game with rules about what students are allowed and not allowed to do.

Yes, there need to be some rules, many conventions, and most important of all, collegial courtesies. But these need to be enveloped in our understanding of what really matters in academic work – which is respectful engagement with the minds of others.

Joining a conversation

When I cite literature, I do so to indicate the conversation I am joining. It demonstrates how my original work is situated in my engagement with the minds of others: work that I build on, work that I disagree with, work that opens up new questions and avenues for exploration by myself and by others.

I am motivated to include citations in my writing because this is the heart of academic work – engaging with the minds of others and trying to make that extraordinary ability, as Jerome Bruner called it, understandable to others.

How on earth can it be a good idea to teach students to fear this marvellous engagement with the minds of others? Of course, we should do it respectfully but the best way to learn how to do that is to learn why we cite and reference. And I do not cite and reference to please a piece of software or because I feel guilty and frightened of being “caught out”.

This “procedurising” of assessment, and our engagement with knowledge, runs counter to any educational thinking I know of, unless we want to revisit a bit of good old behavourialism: if students get zapped by the plagiarism inquisition often enough they will stop plagiarising.

Well of course they will. But they will also stop meaningful engagement with the minds of others. They will stop understanding what it means to do academic work. All they will know is that the punishment stops, and the fear abates.

But cheating is on the rise

Is cheating increasing? This may be true but the evidence is complex. The main point, however, is that so-called cheating has risen as our efforts to counter it have become more and more draconian. I am not making a claim to causality here, this is just an observation. To say that the situation is extremely serious is not a good justification for continuing the same approach to an extremely serious situation.

It is time to step back and remember why we care about academic writing and what joy and benefit comes from writing done well and with integrity. And we should share this with students. We are meant to be nurturing critical thinkers and professionals of tomorrow.

Let us take a more professional approach to our role in nurturing good and strong academic writing. Let’s not de-professionalise ourselves and leave it to the software. And let us critically consider the idea that the software saves us time. I know time is precious and higher education has an endemic problem of workloads but beware illusory solutions.

Ultimately, the Spanish Inquisition approach causes harm. The approach of institutionalised, industrial-level fear only encourages more academic malpractice, not less.

Contracting cheating firms, or essay mills, overtly prey on students’ fear of being caught plagiarising. They advertise their services as “plagiarism checks” and offer guarantees against high “originality” scores. But of course, really, these are simply guarantees against referencing checks.

If we go back to the true meaning of plagiarism, it is taking credit for someone else’s work: and this is what essay mills offer. They draw a student in with offers of help and advice, or “collaborative” writing – but ultimately, they position the student to take credit for work they have not done. And students get to this stage of desperation for many reasons, which we don’t yet fully understand, but one of them is fleeing the fear of being caught plagiarising.

The power of why

Ultimately, the solution to questions of academic writing and cheating lie in not asking “how?” but asking “why?” Why do we write or undertake other tasks within higher education? If our students understand the meaningfulness of engaging with the minds of others and building their own work, then the rest follows, and problems of a citation wrongly done are easy to address as part of the normal formative processes of learning.

The very different phenomenon of deliberately cheating, be it large-scale copy and paste or, far more likely these days, the use of an essay mill, requires a different solution. Even the student innocently enticed in by the promise of plagiarism help, ultimately knows that they are submitting work that is not their own, as if it is their own.

We also need to ask why we have major summative assessments that can so easily be done by someone other than the student who should be doing it? This is where we should address our energy.

Redesigning assessment for better learning is most often a win-win move. Students’ learning is improved. Deliberate cheating is very difficult. Staff time can be decreased because it is not spent on distractions such as checking up on that originality score. For example, Kay Sambell and Sally Brown have produced a rich and varied repository of alternative and authentic assessment examples.

Moving our energies from wasted summative feedback to rich formative feedback not only encourages better learning but it makes most forms of cheating significantly harder.

Can we please stop traumatising a generation of students with this industrialised fear of plagiarism and go back to why good academic writing and other work matters? Consign the Spanish Inquisition to history and let’s return to sharing with students the joy of academic work done well and with integrity.

The author would like to acknowledge Joanne Wood of Lancaster University for the many rich conversations about how to bring joy to students’ experiences of academic writing.

13 responses to “Students must be taught to engage in academic writing, not to fear the Spanish Inquisition of plagiarism detection

  1. I entirely agree with this but there is a problem – at the PGT level – it’s impossible to have a conversation about malpractice because many international students don’t speak enough English to understand the conversation let alone the context.

    My university saw a heavy increase in post-graduate students during covid – the University was over the moon – except it soon became clear that many of them regardless of their certificates spoke little to no English. Against University rules, material had to be translated into their home language, so they had a basic understanding of our regulations.

    As a result – you can have a large cohort where many of the students have no idea what is going on yet submit work on time every time and the English is fine. The response of many academics when faced with having to investigate 150 out of 300 on a module for malpractice was just to decide to go with the flow – I’m not sure I blame them.

    When chairing panels – I started the approach of asking some of the students to start by simply reading out a couple of paragraphs of their work – they were incapable of doing so.

    I’m surprised none of the papers have ever done a decent expose on this because I know my university is not alone in this. It’s something academics and leaders discuss privately but for obvious reasons will never discuss publicly.

    This isn’t a knock against the PGT students – many of whom borrowed money from family to come here and are desperate for success and are decent hard-working individuals. in one case I had to deal with a student who had a mental collapse in a country where he could not understand anyone, and nobody understood him – it was frankly immoral that student was put in this situation.

    It’s also not a knock against all Universities – more selective Universities use lists and their own means to make sure students are capable of PGT study. The experience there entirely different.

    1. Valuing the minds of others is not a purely western idea. I think the problem you describe is related purely to over-recruiting for financial gain and then not having the support in place. While universities continue to do that, they really are not even in the conversation about good academic practice.

      1. “I think the problem you describe is related purely to over-recruiting for financial gain”

        It is and isn’t – the selective Universities also overrecruit for profit but they tend to be pick off the more affluent students from a small number of “approved” Universities so often don’t have the language issues. However, they have a slightly different issue in that some of their better off students just pay for all their assessments to be written. The cost has gone down as more companies enter the market.

        You can spot these students if there is an exam in there as their performance is terrible as they have no idea what is going on.

    2. It should be a knock against generic univerisities as the focus has shifted from educating people to gaining more and more money. The “bums-on-seats” approach. You describe a fiscal system in your post, not an academic one.

  2. Joking apart – I can understand why we are tempted to ‘solve’ plagiarism by making certain that students know what plagiarism is, but it has been my experience as a Learning Developer that it can be a bit like that psychology experiment: how many of us don’t think of an elephant if told ‘Don’t think of an elephant!”?
    As you say, Jan – talk of plagiarism worries students. It paralyses them – makes them think they need to check every thought they have against every single published thought, in case that thought already lurks somewhere, and belongs to someone big and important. And if they can’t find their thought? Well – then they simply haven’t found it! And they are pretty sure their tutor or (expletive deleted) Tu**it** will, soon enough.
    This leads to writing which looks like this: [Quote] + [Quote] + [Quote]. It’s safe, it’s legal – but it’s pretty rubbish! It doesn’t have much analysis.
    The feedback then is: ‘Don’t use so many quotes! Paraphrases are better than quotes’ and the result can be: [Mucked about quote] + [Slightly wrong quote] + [Almost a quote].
    And that, we all know, equals PLAGIARISM.

    1. Agree – fear of plagiarism leads to terrible writing. Why on earth would we do that to our students? And to our disciplinary knowledge – of which we are rightfully guardians in some way.

  3. I think that this thread reveals the problems with the whole situation – there’s a mixing of plagiarism (intended deceit) and transgressive intertextuality – which I would describe as the inability to summarise effectively, hence no intention to deceive simply not ‘playing by the rules of the game’ – rules which the coaches all translate in different ways !

    To my mind there are a number of contributory factors, and universities and academics must take a responsibility in this.

    Firstly we have an admissions process which allows students whose English is not good enough to undertake a course in the Uk or by distance learning (for which the university can charge a premium)

    Then we do not use the incremental funds to support that student, knowing that their writing & comprehension skills may be lower than those of a native speaker. But it’s ok, because quality of English isn’t a learning outcome…..

    Add in a socially constructed definition of plagiarism and other forms of academic misconduct, and academics who are ill-equipped to deal with the problem and universities whose policies make it hard to deal with the minority who do intend to deceive and we have a receipt for disaster.

    Add to the mix, a belief that authentic assessment or another form of pedagogy that is flavour of the day is somehow a magic bullet to prevent all forms of academic misconduct, and we really are in deep water…

    There is no magic bullet – the rules change based on institution, individual academic and the course being taken. What is acceptable in one discipline is not acceptable in another and that seems unlikely to change.

    I don’t think formative assessment will reduce or prevent poor practice, but I do agree with Jan here – a lot of effort on summative comments may be wasted – I mean who “actually” reads them unless it’s a fail grade….?

    Could authentic assessment approaches work? – I’d like to think so, but 60+ years of academics trying to design out poor practice hasn’t been effective so far….

    If we want to encourage engagement with academic writing we need to provide students with opportunities to practice in a safe environment and explain the “rules” more effectively – or throw them out and find something which provides a better solution.

    It’s time for change – time to tear up the old rules and be less possessive about original ideas – after all everything that the original author and those who have commented have said is created through assimilation if the evidence as we see it – Jan as an academic, Alan as a panel chair, JW as a learning developer and me as an interested party in the debate…

  4. I’m not sure who the ‘we’ is throughout this piece, because I don’t recognise, from my own and my colleagues’ practice, much of what is described and rightly condemned here. In my department we never talk about ‘avoiding plagiarism’, but always about the positive reasons for referencing – why wouldn’t you want to give credit where it’s due, help your reader to follow up on interesting points, or show off the breadth of your research? We know that scaring students is counterproductive and is likely to lead to superficial strategies; we know that Turnitin is never the whole story … and I don’t think we’re alone in focusing positively on academic integrity and not negatively on plagiarism.

  5. I was told by some Indian students that their academic system does not check for plagiarism and it is not frowned upon. They can copy whole chunks of text into assignments and submit it without it being registered as copying. I was then told the Japanese system has a similar perspective.
    If we want to ensure work is original, we have to consider all routes to our universities, and ensure they understand the points being made in this article.

    1. Absolutely agree – although if we have policies which we point students to, academic integrity sessions where we explain the rules and support for writing, at what point can we say as a university we have done all we can?

      The expressions “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink” cones to mind. universities and students need to share the responsibility for making sure that the ‘rules’ are understood and applied.

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