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Plagiarism and E-Learning


John Simkin
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I have been an external examiner for four different Masters courses since the mid-1990s. Plagiarism has become rife in recent years. The silliest example I found was a student who had lifted a whole chunk from a a website of mine and pasted it into his coursework without acknowledging me - not a good idea to upset the external examiner in this way! Needless to say, he failed. JISC has now introduced a plagiarism detection service (TurnitinUK), and students in many universities are told that any work they submit may be checked via this service: http://www.submit.ac.uk/

A recent report has discovered an international trade through which UK students could get computer assignments written by students or graduates in India or Eastern Europe. Rates are as low as £5.00 ($10). They also discovered “sub-contractors” acting as middlemen between cheating students and the writers. In fact, this is not so much plagiarism as paying someone to do your work for you. Globalization is even undermining our education system.

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A recent report has discovered an international trade through which UK students could get computer assignments written by students or graduates in India or Eastern Europe. Rates are as low as £5.00 ($10). They also discovered “sub-contractors” acting as middlemen between cheating students and the writers. In fact, this is not so much plagiarism as paying someone to do your work for you. Globalization is even undermining our education system.

Maybe if the "factory model" of competition for external rewards in education is undermined it will be no bad thing. It largely depends on how the profession responds.

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I read the report about students using students or graduates in India or Eastern Europe to produce assignments for them - in The Guardian, wasn't it? There was a report on a lecturer who signed on with one of these agencies in order to check how they worked. One of his own students contracted the agency to write an assignment, and the lecturer completed it for him and sent it back (anonymously, of course). The student then submitted the lecturer's own work back to him. Caught red-handed!

I have worked as an external examiner for several different universities, going back to the early 1990s. Since the appearance of the Web in 1993 plagiarism has become a major problem. Coursework is becoming far less useful as a means of assessing students. You can find ready-made essays on a wide range of topic all over the Web. This is why the JISC plagiarism service is now being used extensively by universities. The nature of courework will have to change. Rather than setting an essay with a very general title such as "What were the main reasons for the outbreak of World War I?" students could, for example, demonstrate that they can carry out research via the Web. This means more work for the teachers in setting relevant and varied coursework, but it would be more valuable for the students. Students should also be taught how to evaluate different sources and, above all, how to reference them properly. Time and time again I read students' work where they have clearly quoted a source (I often detect a sudden shift in style) without referencing it.

I used to teach the German language. Students are now using translators such as Babel Fish. They don't work, however, and make serious mistakes that are easy to spot. Such translators are only useful for giving the gist of what a text is all about and then you can decide if you want it translated properly by a professional translator.

Amuse yourself with this page from the online version of The Sun newspaper. It consists of football chants and songs translated into German in anticipation of the World Cup. I like the rendering of "God save our Gracious Queen" as "Gott Speichern Unsere Liebenswürdige Königin". For the non-Germanists amongst you, "speichern" means "to save" in the sense of saving a file or program on hard disk, CD-ROM, etc.

http://www.thesun.co.uk/article/0,,2-2006180295,00.html

Babel Fish triumphs again!

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As a university teacher, I'm actually quite pleased that plagiarism is so easy on the Internet. As Graham says, it's the nature of the tasks which lends itself to plagiarism that is the real problem. However, if you change the nature of the tasks, you also change the relationships between teachers-learners-subject material. And just as we can see that 'subject materials' have become more and more diverse (i.e. you don't just get one text book which covers the whole course any more), so have the functions of teaching and learning. The 'teacher' on a course isn't always going to be the person who's job title is 'teacher'.

We have one of these 'automatic' systems for checking whether a submitted text was plagiarised. The procedure, as was explained to us teachers, was that students submit their essays to the system, which then flags any correspondences with other texts on the system's database. The teacher would then check these correspondences, and, if they were evidence of plagiarism, report the student to the Disciplinary Committee!

My suggestion was that we should just report the student as soon as flags came up … and the response from the bureaucrats was "Oh, they're far too busy to deal with each case like that" (i.e. we aren't!). Guess who doesn't use the plagiarism check system.

The heart of this question for me is that we're in transition from an industrialised, simplistic, mass education system to a niche-based individualistic one, which uses technology in order to provide individual attention. So long as teachers keep behaving as if they were living in the 19th century, 21st century technology will make their lives difficult.

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Dealing with plagiarism, as David points out, can be problematic. In my experience there are quite a few grey areas where, for example, the student is guilty only of sloppy bibliographical referencing, in which case a quiet word and a request to add the reference will suffice. I have only come across one case where a whole piece of coursework was largely a cut-and-paste job. I spotted several examples in the piece of work in question and then the JISC detector found lots more. We just gave the coursework a fail grade and reprimanded the student. He didn't learn the lesson, however, and carried on doing the same thing - but on a smaller scale. Needless to say, he failed the whole course.

Lecturers too are guilty of plagiarism. See:

Decoo, W. (2002) Crisis on campus: confronting academic misconduct, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

An interesting read!

I have only come across one case of a lecturer plagiarising on a grand scale. As a series editor, I could see that a chapter she submitted for a book was largely lifted from other sources and often lacking bibliographical references. It was not easy to explain to her why her work was rejected.

A local education authority in the UK "reversioned" a program for language learners that I wrote in the mid-1980s for a new type of computer. It was obviously a rip-off as they had even copied one of my coding fudges that would not have been necessary on the new type of computer. The handbook also contained many sentences that were lifted direct from my original text. I thought about taking legal action against them, but was advised that it could be expensive. My solictor's advice was to make sure, subtly and privately, that the key players in the world of computer assisted language learning knew what they had done. I took his advice. It did the trick. They were ostracised from conferences and seminars and the unit that had ripped off my program was eventually closed down.

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