Plagiarism and academic integrity

Posted by: Meredith Seaman, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Perhaps we are better at detecting plagiarism because of software such as Google and Turnitin. Or perhaps we forget that every generation, at least since the ancient Romans and Greeks, complains that the next one is composed of lazy, possibly illiterate, youngsters willing to cut ethical corners.  

– Jeff Karon, A Positive Solution for Plagiarism, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 2012

late_afternoon_student_studyingIt can seem from recent news articles that the more technology universities adopt to detect plagiarism, the more students have easy access to online material, social media networks and professional online services to break the rules. But whether on the increase or not, and what or whoever is to blame, fostering academic integrity in students can feel like an overwhelming challenge for teachers and institutions.

If there is one element in all of the discussion that seems to underpin most of the suggestions and strategies, it is the benefit of moving the conversation from one about plagiarism to the broader topic of academic integrity.

Less emphasis on punitive strategies and more on what we could call ‘health promotion’ strategies seems intuitively to me the right way to go. My alternate title for this post was: “Strategies to foster academic integrity with an emphasis on prevention rather than cure”.

While it may be challenging, research papers, web resources and blog posts are full of these positive suggestions and potential ways to improve learning cultures at the same time as mitigating risk.

This post will survey a few of these and add some examples from our own context here at RMIT (the paragraphs beginning ‘In practice…’) of a large first year social sciences course that were kindly shared with me for this post.

There are many strategies and interventions that can help your students demonstrate academic integrity and avoid plagiarism, but no magic bullet. I want to suggest three key aspects from ‘Minimising Plagiarism’ at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education (The University of Melbourne) that may provide a framework to reconsider the elements of academic integrity in your course:

1. Make expectations clear to students

Modelling good behaviour, talking about your academic values with students, and making your expectations about referencing and originality of work clear in course guides and in-class can help. Share your expectations with your colleagues too. We don’t all start paraphrasing and referencing at the high standard of peer reviewed journals and we shouldn’t expect that from students new to tertiary study. Unpacking appropriate standards for students as a teaching team, then with students, and providing clear guidelines and examples of referencing appropriate to the discipline are critical. RMIT’s Learning Lab (see below) has modules that you could consider incorporating into your course.

In practice: Colleagues embedded a short module on plagiarism, referencing and paraphrasing including short diagnostic exercise into a large first year class using discipline-relevant examples. They also did a formative quiz with students on their perceptions of what was and wasn’t plagiarism, and paraphrasing and referencing exercises. This cleverly included the issue of whether internet content was in the free public domain (or needed to be cited and so on) which is commonly misunderstood. The module and associated quiz was part of a process of developing consensus amongst teaching staff and the students about what constituted ‘cheating’ and/or plagiarism, and making sure all students were aware of expectations. It was done early in the class so that anyone that didn’t sail through the quiz (most did) could get appropriate support and feedback.

2. Revisit course and assessment design

Students are more likely to cheat if they feel a course is unimportant or badly taught. If they feel ignored or cannot understand the purpose of the assessment or believe they are being asked to reiterate well-worn ideas rather than create their own, they cut corners … 

– Jude Carroll, Deterring, detecting and dealing with plagiarism at Brookes University (UK)

One of the best ways to tackle plagiarism and associated problems may be by focussing on innovative and flexible assessment tasks that feel authentic. Refreshing assessment tasks each semester, requiring students to show drafts, or unpack their learning and the processes they have undertaken in their assignments may be some simple ways to design against plagiarism.

Another factor may be the timing and overloading of assessment tasks. If assessments are carefully staggered across the semester and subjects/courses, and if students are supported through good assessment design to plan ahead, then there will be less of the last-minute pressure that has been shown to be one cause of students submitting work that isn’t their own.

In practice: Colleagues used online Turnitin submission in a first year assignment, providing students with access to be able to check their own paraphrasing and referencing before formal submission of the work for grading. Students are able to see a visual representation of the extent of their work’s originality.

3. Visibly monitor, detect and respond to incidences of plagiarism

This tip partly takes us back to making expectations clear.  Reinforced in guides on preventing plagiarism is the importance of detection and response as part of the overall package (but not in isolation). Using Turnitin as part of your Blackboard assignment submission is one way to openly demonstrate to students that work will be checked for originality, and can also be used as an educational tool.

Further resources or prevention is better than cure:

Resources that highlight strategies and solutions to promote academic integrity and prevent plagiarism (these cover everything from induction, learning outcome design, creating a culture of learning, all the way through to assessment):

RMIT-specific resources:

  • At RMIT, Turnitin is now embedded in Blackboard assessment tools.  Click on the link to find out more.
  • Academic Integrity: an essential requirement in tertiary study (PPT 45 KB)
    This is a basic and easy to use PowerPoint suited to introducing students to the concept of academic integrity which can be adapted to your teaching context
  • Assessment Plagiarism at RMIT (PPT 76 KB)
    A PowerPoint explaining to staff the importance of assessment practice in minimising plagiarism.
  • While best done in a discipline context, RMIT’s Learning Lab resources include a video, online tutorial and pdf quicktips on referencing, integrating references into written work, and tips on avoiding plagiarism for students that could be embedded into your course. See their Referencing section.

Recent articles to share with your colleagues and students which may help you unpack academic integrity and plagiarism in your classes:

Thanks to Rachel Chamberlain and Rosy Peake from the School of GUSS for their input into this post and for sharing their experiences and clever solutions.

Share your thoughts on academic integrity and strategies to develop and promote it in the comments below!

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