Within the scope of this research, we will define plagiarism and try to outline both the causes of plagiarism and methods of its prevention. “Plagiarism involves submitting work for assessment that is not the student's own.” (Fass 1990) Plagiarized work, such as writing, computer programs, plans and recordings, is appropriated, stolen or purchased from another source and submitted as original work. In much of the related literature, the terms 'plagiarism' and 'cheating' are used interchangeably and, indeed, plagiarism is a form of cheating. (Wilhoit 1994) But cheating can be different from plagiarism when it concerns cheating in examinations. Whatever form it takes, it is apparent that plagiarism is one of the most important problems that affect academic community today, and it is becoming even larger problem in the 21st century due to the possibilities that become available in the Internet.
Today, with the ease of access to information provided by the World Wide Web, together with the flexible range of study options that include online assessment, the capacity for plagiarism is greater than ever before. The researchers note that increased reports of it have caused stern responses from educators around the world. (Jewler et al 2003) One response of faculty is to institute invigilated examinations to ensure that students' work is their own; but even then, academic honesty is not guaranteed. In online settings the task of authentication becomes especially difficult, prompting educators to extreme measures such as requiring iris scanning or photographic recognition of the keyboard operator. The difficulty for educators is that the online submission of assessment tasks provides an easy avenue for students to submit work that is not their own for summative assessment. But before one becomes overwhelmed with concern, it is worth remembering that sophisticated forms of plagiarism have been around for as long as assessment tasks have been set.
At the heart of the issue is the long-held belief in higher education that academic honesty is central to the pursuit of knowledge. Professors who are found guilty of plagiarism in their published work can expect to throw in their careers if they are found out, because plagiarism is considered to be the lowest form of professional dishonesty. (Wilhoit 1994) Claiming as one's own the work of another has sometimes cost the positions of very senior academics, so the scorn with which plagiarism is met applies to all - including students.
It is generally understood that, if students reproduce part of their source material but do not acknowledge the source appropriately, there may be many different underlying reasons for it. Perhaps the most obvious - and also the most contentious - is that students have misunderstood what was expected of them. (Jendrek 1992) Where students don't understand exactly what is expected, they may make minor errors or they may make more substantial ones that are harder to defend. Students from overseas backgrounds may fit easily into this category, but in addition are all those students - especially those in their first year of study - who do not know the disciplinary conventions of the field.
The seriousness of the act may range in terms of the amount of the plagiarized material, but it may also vary for other reasons. For example, students may be required to work collaboratively but to submit independent assessment tasks, so that there is a risk of submitted work being similar or substantially the same. Yet another situation might involve open-book exams, where students bring along annotated texts and reproduce them. In cases such as these, the plagiarism may well be unintentioned. At the other extreme is the student who continues to plagiarize even when identified and punished. And so it goes with students who clearly understand what academic dishonesty is but still endeavor to carry it off successfully. The issue is one of intentionality, so there is a very clear, lawful distinction between the two though, of course, intentionality may be very difficult to prove.
In a recent study, the researchers found that 81 per cent out of almost 1,000 undergraduates admitted to plagiarism at some time during their studies, and that 41 per cent admitted to cheating on at least one occasion in an exam situation. (Jewler et al 2003) Although these findings imply that a majority of students are willing to plagiarize, they say nothing about the degree of dishonesty most students would be prepared to initiate. There is a distinction between intentionality and unintentionality that may not always be clear; a student may only plagiarize a few terms or a string of words. Consequently, both the intention to plagiarize and the extent of the plagiarism contribute to the seriousness of the act.
One view of plagiarism is that students who do not understand exactly what is expected of them are sometimes driven to plagiarism. When one takes into consideration the various academic cultures with which undergraduates have to become familiar, and the different, frequently inexplicit expectations of academic staff, this view makes sense. For this reason, much of the related literature recommends that plagiarism be actively discouraged by the nature of assessment tasks, which should be as individualized and appropriate to the individual learner as possible. (Fass 1990) However, plagiarism may be unintentional for a range of reasons, among them that the student misunderstands the task, that assessment requirements are ambiguous or misleading, that students have not been taught how to communicate effectively in the subject, and so on.
Institutions and faculties vary in their approaches to how plagiarists should be dealt with. In some institutions, identified plagiarists fail the subject concerned if the plagiarized material is substantial and intention is evident. Repeat offenders would be dealt with more severely, perhaps by being excluded from the institution. The academic experts recommend that repeat offenders be dealt with more severely while first-time offenders should be given counseling and support so that they do not make the same mistake again. In making this recommendation, they recognize that it is possible that, in many first-offence cases, plagiarism is a desperate measure undertaken by students who either do not know how to perform what is expected of them or who cannot perform it because of other commitments or constraints. (Jewler et al 2003)
Some studies identify the problem of plagiarism as being greater among international students, but it is worth noting that the evidence is equivocal on this point. (Jewler et al 2003) Where there is evidence of higher rates of plagiarism among international students, they are also more likely to be affected by a range of mitigating circumstances, such as poverty, isolation and financial pressure requiring longer paid working hours and/or embarrassment at not knowing how to do the task. Perhaps most interesting is the finding that plagiarism was more prevalent in assessment tasks requiring surface approaches to learning (such as in fields where concrete knowledge has to be memorized), whereas lower levels of plagiarism were associated with assessment tasks requiring higher-order thinking skills and therefore deep approaches to learning tasks. (Jewler et al 2003)
The related literature clearly identifies two different attitudes towards plagiarists. On the one hand there are those who see plagiarism and cheating, as well as falsification of any kind, as a serious violation of ethical standards. On the other, there are those who see it as a desperate measure undertaken by those who either do not understand how to use the work of other people in support of their own arguments or who are pressed to copy the work of others in order to avoid failure. (Jendrek 1992) Whether an educator holds one view or the other is likely to guide the commitment to detection, but there is a much more important issue to consider.
The environment in which students study and develop ethical sensibilities within particular fields of knowledge is largely sketched by educators, principally through assessment. Where educators set up competitive learning environments or heavy workloads, they are providing fertile ground for students to cut corners. Additionally, the 'vogue' associated with group work has encouraged collaboration but at the same time made it difficult for lecturers to identify ownership of submitted work. (Jewler et al 2003) The problem is that conflicting messages are given to students when they are encouraged to piggyback and collaborate in some situations but not in others; and the distinction is difficult both for students and for assessors. The challenge for educators becomes one of teaching ethical standards and ensuring that students know what is expected of them - or not expected of them - in assessment tasks.
There may be faculty reluctance to reporting plagiarism. The reasons for this may be that faculties do not want the matter dealt with in the larger institution, or that teachers feel they are in the business of teaching subject matter and not moral values. There are several reasons for these attitudes: the pressure upon faculties to increase retention; students being increasingly litigious; students threatening physical harm; teachers' fears about being the subject of prosecution; or teachers feeling that administrators will cast off their claims as being insignificant. (Jewler et al 2003)
In reality, detecting plagiarism is laborious and time-consuming. Many teachers are reluctant to adopt a view of students as probable cheats to be constantly checked and monitored. But, for some teachers, it is felt that it is inequitable to ignore plagiarism because it means that some students may achieve grades or awards for which they have done none of the work at all. The easy access to 'paper mills', or sites for purchasing completed essays and assignments, has exacerbated this concern, and reports of large proportions of cohorts caught plagiarizing from a few sources are not uncommon.
Whether a teacher adopts a suspicious perspective on student plagiarism should depend on there being a basis in evidence that triggers action, simply because we should accept that students are innocent until proven guilty. It is certainly the case that students - especially those from overseas - do make mistakes, and so do teachers when they encourage piggybacking in some situations but not in others. As noted, an important factor in punishment should be the intention and extent of the plagiarism but, when students become repeat offenders, it is difficult, if not impossible, to give them the benefit of the doubt. It is evident that while forms of plagiarism vary significantly, especially in the Internet era, the academic community should make more substantial efforts to address this problem in complex and efficient manner.