The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

Various strategies can be employed by academics to police plagiarism, ranging from simple Web search techniques used by individual lecturers, to the employment of easy-to-use freeware capable of tracking plagiarism between cohorts of students, as well as to quite elaborate systemic approaches involving the engagement of commercial plagiarism detection companies as described in section 2.4.

Detecting type-2 plagiarism, the production of bespoke essays by professional staff, is a much harder, time consuming task and very difficult to prove in most cases. As discussed above, ‘paper mills’ employ experienced professionals (in fact, some paper mills boast having established academics working for them) to produce tailored and completely original work which for that reason is not detectable via the plagiarism detection software. Academics might find themselves reading assignments that are out-of-character for a specific student (because the quality of work is higher than the typical grades the student gets, or the assignment uses colloquialisms that are unlikely to be known of certain groups of students) but given that the academic has burden of proof, the punishment of this practice might not always be forthcoming.

This explains why in recent years, the attention seems to be turning to developing software applications that detect plagiarism through the use of stylometry – the application of the study of linguistic style to determine the authorship of (mostly written) works. Software applications that use stylometric analysis basically study measurable features of literary style, such as sentence length, vocabulary richness and use statistical tools to identify variations in the frequency of words, word lengths, word forms, that suggest different authorship and hence plagiarism. Although these products are still in a developing stage, academics are very hopeful that these applications will assist with the detection of completely plagiarized works, bought from Paper Mills[i].

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9. Familiarise yourself with the various plagiarism detection software packages and develop an efficient rubric for checking your submissions.

10. Consider forming detection ‘teams’ with a view to providing an efficient division of labour and guidelines for best practice.

11. Remain open-minded at all times.

While most universities around the world rely on their publicly stated policies and procedures (including honour codes and student contracts) to act as a deterrent to any student contemplating plagiarism, their publication alone is unlikely to cut any sway with would-be plagiarists. Even universities that are committed to eradicate plagiarism must be aware that approaches that “focus on eradication rather than minimisation of plagiarism can be impractical, prohibitively expensive and even harmful to the learning environment” (QAA (2017)).

Given that chances of detection of type-2 plagiarism are painfully low (as evidenced by the extremely low rates of punishment – see section 2.3), the way to avoid type-2 plagiarism must be through prevention.

Prevention may be associated with the creation of an environment where students never feel motivated to plagiarise or where engaging in plagiarism becomes very costly and extremely difficult, making it a less attractive practice to engage on.

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12. Create an explicit focus on learning outcomes – students need to see the point of what they are doing.

13. Design assessments that motivate students on the basis of the quality of their learning and the generic skills they acquire rather than the content they memorise.

14. Design assessments where the learning experience is truly authentic, suitably contextualised, completed within a suitably limited time period and as specific to the university course unit as possible.

15. Encourage students to role-play and ‘suspend disbelief’ in assignments, so that they develop a much greater empathy for the subject matter (Chancellor of the Exchequer, CEO, etc.).

16. Include the mandatory use of assignment cover sheets that incorporate signed declarations of originality.

17. With an assignment that is to be submitted electronically, use pop-up confirmations about the conditions that a student is agreeing to when they upload their assignment.

The ability to analyse problems critically is not in abundance among those who elect to plagiarise material from the internet or from their peers, and as the discussion in the sections above demonstrates, the policing of this kind of activity can be a time-consuming and expensive business.

Formal tuition in the art of critical thinking is certainly a way forward, but this will not be time well spent if, subsequently, students are not presented with adequate opportunity to apply this important generic skill. All too often, assignments and examination questions are set that encourage the reproduction of content knowledge rather than critical appreciation of that content knowledge. Generally speaking, this tends to be a reflection of module design that is driven primarily by content considerations and where assessment is very much of an afterthought, rather than the other way around. In short, to be effective, assessment must be authentic: it must mean something to the student, so it will engage them and add value to their skill set.

As scholars such as Ramsden (1992) have argued, the quality of students’ understanding is intimately related to the quality of their engagement with learning tasks. Setting tasks that test their memories or their ability to reproduce content material is not particularly engaging, and this is precisely what many assessment items require – the same assessment items that, coincidentally, lend themselves very well to cutting-and-pasting techniques.

A pertinent question to ask is whether students are entirely to blame for the plagiarism problem that plagues our universities. The study conducted by Ashworth et al. (1997) would suggest not. They conclude that cheating might be looked upon as a symptom of some general malaise. They found that students felt alienated from teaching staff because of their demeanour and their lack of contact with students. Assessment tasks that fail to engage students are a symbol of this gap between students and lecturers, and in the absence of any basic commitment on the part of the student that the work they are doing is significant, there is no moral imperative to refrain from plagiarism or cheating.

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18. Exercise a firm commitment to authentic assessments that have the effect of minimising the extent of assignment recycling, even to the point where every assessment item is unique.

19. Use a mixture of assessment methods and develop novel, employer-focused types of assessment (e.g. policy briefs, executive summaries, video presentations, etc).

20. Seek to encourage departmental co-ordination in a commitment to authentic assessment as a strategy to combat student plagiarism. In this way, students can see there is a synchronised departmental effort to change the way that learning is assessed, and that there is consistency of treatment when it comes to meting out penalties for plagiarism offences.

The point is that while one cannot ‘turn a blind eye’ to students’ plagiarism, it would be fatuous to assume that it is the students who are at fault and the students alone. Could it be that students are cheating because they do not value the opportunity of learning in university classes? Is it conceivable that the pedagogy currently employed has not adjusted to contemporary circumstances? As one author has observed, ‘we expect authentic writing from our students, yet we do not write authentic assignments for them’ (Howard, 2002). It is worth considering why this might be so: one argument is that the ever-increasing pressure on academics to teach, research and administer reduces the time for creating imaginative and otherwise difficult-to-plagiarise (for example, individualised) assignments. As a consequence, there is much anecdotal evidence that academics are retreating back to the unseen, written examination as the sole method of assessing student performance in their courses.

As the literature on authentic assessment reveals, it is solidly based on constructivism, and acknowledges the learner as the chief architect of knowledge building (see, for example, Herrington and Herrington, 1998). It is a form of assessment that fosters understanding of learning processes in terms of real-life performance as opposed to a display of inert knowledge. The student is presented with real-world challenges that require them to apply their relevant skills and knowledge, rather than select from predetermined options, as is the case with multiple-choice tests, for example. Importantly, it is an approach that engages students because the task is something for which they will have an empathy, which, as the empirical evidence suggests, elicits deeper learning.

The key, therefore, is to set meaningful, situational questions relating to real-life, contemporary problems that engage students in the learning process. By making assignments as module-specific as possible - to prevent students from purchasing pre-written papers or paying outsiders to write answers and by the examiners making it clear (as a stated objective of the module unit) that they are looking to reward evidence of depth of learning and sound critical analysis rather than recall of content knowledge - assignments are effectively cheat-proofed, although we must always be mindful of the increasing resource constraints placed upon academics.

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21. Make it a requirement of assessment submissions that outlines and first drafts be submitted on specified dates in the lead-up to the final submission date. This means that the process of producing an assignment is evaluated as well as the final product (Carroll, 2002). This may not prevent some students copying from one another along the way, but it will thwart those individuals who look to produce the finished product while doing very little work themselves.

22. Require students to submit a reflective journal describing their approach to the task, the methodology adopted, the problems encountered and how they resolved these problems.

23. Hold random viva voce sessions that require students to defend and further explain, if necessary, what they have written. If this is clearly advertised to students in class and in course documentation, it will serve as an effective deterrent.

Something of a paradigm shift is likely to be required if the changes described above are to be readily embraced by the majority of teachers in the higher education sector. However, it is worth mentioning that the various ICTs, used effectively, may well assist in this endeavour. Indeed, one could make the point that if as much energy and ingenuity went into developing new and exciting online devices for the purposes of facilitating assessment as there have been devoted to online devices for the detection of plagiarism, then maybe there would be fewer obstacles to negotiate.

In summary, while there is clearly a need to allocate some resources to detection and deterrence, these are essentially reactionary strategies with low probability of success. The proactive measure is the prevention of plagiarism through innovative pedagogy, as this is more likely to produce lasting results. Such an approach provides students with an incentive to learn. The natural corollary to this is that there will be less incentive for students to resort to plagiarism.

[i] Software applications that use stylometry to detect plagiarism include JGAAP, AICBT and Signature.