The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

Charles Caleb Colton once observed that ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’. Whilst this may be apt in many instances, there is a point in the intellectual space where imitation is more akin to theft. This is certainly the case in the higher education sector where, in the internet age, the increasing incidence of student plagiarism has become an ever-increasing cause of concern.

Plagiarism may be defined as the use of another person’s words and/or ideas without acknowledging that the ideas and/or words belong to someone else for someone’s own benefit. It is not a new phenomenon, but there is little doubt that it is a growing problem that lecturers and universities need to address systematically if the underlying causes, rather than the symptoms, are to be addressed.

The problem is not limited to Economics but given that Economic departments tend to have a significantly higher number of students than other degrees, above average class sizes and a significant proportion of international students, it is arguably more likely to be of especial relevance to economics academics.

At the heart of the problem is not only the increasing availability of easily accessible electronic resources, whereupon it has become so much easier for students to ‘cut and paste’ slabs of unedited text but it has become much easier to order a complete, bespoke piece of work from one of the many available online providers. This can sometimes lead to assignments being submitted that are inadequately referenced, highly unfocused or, worse still, largely or entirely someone else’s work.

This chapter considers the various strategies currently being employed to stamp out plagiarism. These include the use of ‘honour codes’ that incorporate punitive systems to discredit plagiarists, the various proprietary and freeware packages available for the electronic detection of plagiarism. More importantly it discusses some practical prevention strategies that includes designing and implementing types of assessments that make plagiarism more difficult to take place.

The discussion will concentrate, first of all, on the defining characteristics of plagiarism and how it manifests itself in the current university environment. This is followed by a brief discussion on the factors deemed to be responsible for plagiarism, and the mechanisms subsequently employed by various institutions to deal with its increasing incidence. The discussion concludes by arguing for an integrated approach founded upon a commitment to assessment regimes that reward critical analysis rather than content regurgitation.

To proceed down this path, it is further argued that assessment items need to be designed in such a way as to present students with authentic learning environments: that is, settings for assessment that engage students with real and relevant tasks, with palpable and practical learning outcomes. Of all disciplines, economics is one that readily lends itself to this approach.

The main aim of the discussion, therefore, is to demonstrate that, while introducing measures to improve deterrence and detection of plagiarism is important, this is essentially a reactionary approach. It is unlikely to yield lasting benefits and might not be efficient to stamp out the most serious types of plagiarism. It is argued that the source of the problem is systemic, and that the focus needs to be on prevention of plagiarism through the use of innovative and engaging assessment. To this end, it is further posited that information and communications technologies (ICTs) can be of invaluable assistance – the very technologies that have led to the burgeoning student plagiarism problem in the first place.