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.