09 April 2007

Problems of Plagiarism

In academic circles the plagiarism issue has escalated in the last few years and is now like a boiling pot threatening to blow its top. The problems are as follows. First, the advent of the Internet meant that essays posted as exemplars could be downloaded and passed off as original work. Perhaps the most famous example was when the UK government issued a justification for the invasion of Iraq which was based on 'evidence' which turned out to be the PhD thesis of a student they'd grabbed off the Web. Keep that example in mind when people are getting on their high horses.

Software companies quickly retaliated by writing programs which would compare any suspicious work submitted with a huge corpus of digital work available. Work plagiarised from stuff on the Net is now detectable. End of round One.

Then along come companies such as Oxbridge Essays who say they will write coursework essays and even dissertations and theses to order - 800 quid a pop plus, depending on urgency of need. If you want it for a deadline in a few days time, the fee might be doubled.

But hang on! Isn't that unethical? Well, here's where it gets complex, and interesting. These essay farms issue a disclaimer saying that the work they produce is for illustrative purposes only, as an example of what might be expected, and must not in any circumstances be passed off as the purchaser's own efforts.

Oh - yeah. If that were true, they could just have a selection of sample essays at different levels on various subjects available for contemplation. But they wouldn't sell as many ready-mades. I don't think they would be very keen on that - especially when the page of 'sample essays' they have on their web site has only one link from a list of thirteen.

There is one argument on their side however. The academic world is much given to asking its students to produce essays, reports, and coursework of all kinds - but it is notoriously reticent about showing what this test-work ought to look like. They don't say 'Write an essay on Othello or the influence of The Origin of Species - and here's what a similar essay looks like.

So most students have not seen lots of other essays on which they are being asked to model their own - and against which they will be judged. Whereas their tutors have seen more essays than they ever want to see again.

Another recent case is that of Open University students selling their old assignments on eBay. The OU has its knickers in quite a twist on this one. Because they know that the essay is the property of the person who wrote it. Students have copyright to their own work. So the OU argues rather feebly that they own copyright to the question which was set. They could get round this problem by setting new questions for each run of a course - but they like to print the same materials and use them over and over again. And they have sometimes argued even more feebly that they might want to use the same questions when they present the course overseas. In the meantime there doesn't seem to be much they can do about Jemimah selling her sets of Sociology essays to the highest bidder.

Back to the essay farms. They say here's your custom written piece on the significance of Britain's Foreign Policy in the lead up to the Crimean War - (800 quid thank you) but we urge you to use this ethically (it's not online by the way, and so cannot be traced).

Well, here's a tip for departments and for programmers. Get the student's earlier works, and compare them stylistically with the latest piece, produced miraculously just before the deadline.

Course, lots of harassed teachers and tutors will not have the time, effort, or inclination to do any of this. They will be only too delighted to keep their own and their department's ratings high by letting it all through without demur. Yes - I know that lots of institutions take this issue seriously and spend a lot of money subscribing to software programs - but these can only compare suspicious cases with materials which are already online. The essay farms neatly sidestep this obstacle - but at a high cost for the would-be cheater.

See also ..

Plagiarism, Copyright and New Media
Self-plagiarism - how to avoid it


Politaholic said...

If a student who struggles to answer simple questions in class, or to complete class assignments, suddenly submits an excellent essay - well, it's a bit suspicious. Similarly, if performance under examination conditions is inexplicably worse than in a set essay, that's a also a little odd. If you know your students plagiarism is more easily detected; but in big university departments where lecturers can barely recognize most of their students, it is obviously a bigger problem.

Roy said...

I agree with what you say - and can add an even more difficult situation. On some online Open University courses that I teach, you may never actually meet your students. So if you come across a sudden improvement, there's always a possibility that it's somebody else's work. That's one problem - and here's another.

I trialled some online courses in a sixth form college recently. Some of the answers to questions were so identical, it was clear some copying was going on (confirmed by a visit to the classroom). The problem when marking such work is that there's a strong temptation to imagine that the first of such answers is the 'original', and the second one you come across the 'copy' - but it could be the other way round.

skipper said...

Two examples come to mind. First was a student whose 18 page essay suddenly began to sound familiar; I then relaised it was copied from one of my own textbooks. He got a royal bollocking and had to resubmit(social work students, as this one was, never get thrown out). Secondly a student this year submitted an essay which was written in such excellent English style that I suspected it was plagiarised. I kept it back and a new unit in the university submitted it to the tests available with the new software Roy mentions. After much delay and messing about I realised in the end this was a brilliant student and gave him 80%!

Anonymous said...

The key is developing a culture of responsibility and engagement in something of value to the writer rather than chasing individual cheaters more