Tertiary education worldwide is in the midst of a plagiarism crisis of global proportions. The problem of cheating seems to be growing according to The Office of the Independent Adjudicator’s (OIA) chief executive, Rob Behrens. He says that plagiarism among postgraduates is also a grave concern. With some students employing people to help them write their work.
In 2016, China’s Ministry of Education issued a new nationwide guideline to “effectively prevent and strictly investigate” dishonorable behavior at higher education institutions.
Plagiarism is usually defined as not just the theft of exact wording from a source, but also the theft of ideas. Plagiarism is often seen not just as immoral but also as outright theft. Incidents of plagiarism vary widely but sadly, the majority of undergraduates say that they have used the work of others without acknowledging them properly.
In fact, numerous students are now even turning to academic essay writing services instead of completing essays themselves. Popular software detection tools excel at pinpointing stark plagiarism but also have their limitations. Since plagiarism is largely defined as the theft of words only, this is the only thing that most software can detect.
The common approach taken by existing software out there is to rely on natural language processing in large databases to see if things are too similar to someone else’s paper.
The sad truth is that students that are intent on cheating can easily beat these systems.
However, determining what is blatantly cheating or merely an original (but similar) idea or sentence is the real challenge. It can get quite difficult to separate your ideas from the numerous other ideas out there and when we read or write we tend to bring other knowledge we have consumed to the table.
Although we may accidentally reuse ideas from other people, does the same apply to words?
And if so, do they require attribution even if arrived at originally. Words and their many combinations fall into predictable patterns sometimes and part of that may (ironically) have to do with the methods of thinking that we teach students in academia.
The simple fact of the matter is that sometimes, certain words naturally occur in sentences that seem similar to each other, especially when speaking about similar subjects.
In academic circles, it is understood that science articles reuse words much more frequently than the humanities and some people do understand that plagiarism is not always intentional or deceitful. Understandings of plagiarism may even vary between different types of courses.
The solution also has to begin with academics and those in power as well. Lord Woolf has even instructed the London School of Economics (LSE) to “lay down guidance that is as precise as possible on what assistance is and is not appropriate for a postgraduate student to receive”.
The concept of plagiarism is also quite different for different people and in some cultures imitation can be seen as a form respect and/or flattery.
Some academics may also be reluctant to highlight cases of minor plagiarism (especially in a student’s first year) due to the harsh repercussions these students may face.
As with many things, it all begins at home. Parents can help to stem cheating by putting the emphasis on learning, not just on grades. Parents should make it very clear that they are interested in what their children have learned in college or university and have discussion on issues that intrigue their children.
According to Dr. Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, students must be taught how to intelligently synthesize work from multiple sources as they are much more likely to plagiarize when relying on one source. That will however, require that students understand larger arguments before absorbing the ideas of others into their work.
She also says that “People plagiarize because they’re not confident expressing things on their own.”
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