Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Plagiarism Reframed

Mention plagiarism to any third level academic and you are likely to be greeted with groans and laments.
This is one topic that gets into people's hearts – it leads to animated discussions and hard views. It is unwise to be regarded as soft on the issue.
It is annoying, very annoying to be reading something presented as a student's original work when it dawns on you - this is familiar - or - this is not the same style of writing as expected.
Plagiarism is genuinely offensive to many academics - it offends one's sense of academic integrity and is regarded as a dishonourable practice and a form of cheating.
Many also feel that the student is trying to make a fool out of them – the tables are reversed - instead of the assignment being a test of the student it is a test of the examiner.
Assuming the examiner will not spot the obvious is a form of insult.

In most institutions plagiarism is treated as a disciplinary rather than learning or teaching matter - student's face expulsion, suspension and fines if they are found guilty of the charge.
Remarkably, despite clearly stated policies and warnings to students - it seems that the incidence of plagiarism is increasing rather than decreasing. All in all it is of great concern and worry.
There is a need for a radical rethink of how we conceptualise and deal with plagiarism.

Most treatments of plagiarism begin with a definition and they look to dictionaries as the source (always a worrying sign) - something like – plagiarism is the act of passing off other peoples written work as your own etc..
Much of the academic practice centres on how to spot plagiarism and how to punish it. There is a good business in the technology of plagiarism detection (most people know the Turnitin software).
Of course, as the technology on the detection side gets better – so too there are many more Internet sources to copy and even services that will write your assignments for a fee.
We have the plagiarism wars – each side trying to outwit the other. As with all wars there are casualties on both sides.

“If I was you I wouldn’t start from here at all” said the wise Kerryman when asked for directions. So with plagiarism let’s leave it for a while and come at the problem from an entirely different starting point.

A constructivist pedagogy assumes that we build new knowledge through the interaction of present and past experiences. I like to refer to this process as the act of making meaning. For example, when I read good theory the ideas resonate with me – I connect these new insights with my past experiences. An essential characteristic of the constructivist model of learning is that making meaning is a unique and personal process. There is no universal knowledge just personalised knowledge.

Dewey contrasts the traditional and constructivist approaches to learning:
On the one hand, learning is the sum total of what is known, as that is handed down by books and learned men. It is something external, an accumulation of cognitions as one might store material commodities in a warehouse. Truth exists ready-made somewhere. Study is then the process by which an individual draws on what is in storage.
On the other hand, learning means something which the individual does when he studies. It is an active, personally conducted affair.
(Dewey, 1944 p 335)

Dewey’s own vision was in keeping with the latter active notion of learning expressed above. If you agree with a constructivist model of learning (and most theorists do) then there is no such thing as purely original work. Even these words as I write are made up of insights and ideas from many sources – true I have integrated these with my own.

So for most of this text – which I claim as my own writing – I am making meaning from multiple sources from people, experiences and feelings in my past. Note that where I cite from Dewey above I indicate in the format that these are Dewey’s exact words – I am inviting you the reader to make your own meaning.

When students are given written assignments they are being asked to make meaning not to reproduce knowledge.

Plagiarism is a refusal or failure to make meaning.

There are many reasons why people refuse or fail to make meaning. Sometimes students are confused about what is expected, some students are reluctant to express their own ideas as they feel this is not real learning. Other students worry about their ability to write and are in awe of other peoples words – how could I write it better than an expert. Some cultures are more reluctant to question great writings and individual meaning making is discouraged.

And yes – some students are genuinely dishonest and are attempting to cheat the system.

How can we deal with plagiarism?
The first point is that prevention is far better than cure. Cheating is really only significant where high stakes assessment is involved. In other words when students are being ‘tested’ and the result forms part of their grade. A strategy of providing early ‘low stakes’ or formative assessment events will provide feedback to students who miss-learn what is expected of them when they write.

Secondly, academic writing requires additional skills and specialist knowledge such as how to format, cite and prepare bibliographies. As with all skills people learn best by a mix of rule learning and practice. When used properly, citations and quotations may provide a form of scaffold for the novice academic writer while he or she is finding their own voice and meaning. But many students at this stage fail to apply the citation rules and often regard them as incidental - a question of format rather than core content. Early and frequent opportunities to practice academic writing with rapid feedback on errors and progression will counter this.

Finally, what of the cheats – what’s really happening here? I believe cheating is also a consequence of miss-learning. It is a failure to learn values. The values of academic integrity and the collaborative quest of knowledge underpins the third level education system. This frequently gets mixed up with the economics of qualifications and the preparation and entry points for jobs. A student who cheats believes that there is a short cut to a qualification and that the assessment is too blunt an instrument to catch them.

This may say something about the standards and practice of assessment as well as the character of the student.

Dewey, J. (1944). Democracy and education (First Free Press Paperback ed.). New York: Macmillan.
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