It’s a weekday in London. I have just finished a three-hour seminar and am now waiting to be called in to a plagiarism hearing. The atmosphere is weird, not exactly hostile, but not welcoming or friendly either. There is a coffee machine and the windows look out over the roofs of London, yet, I feel dread and nerves start to engulf me. I become more nervous by the minute. I hope this meeting will start on time so I won’t have to wait for much longer. My heart is beating stronger and faster, my stomach nerves are pulling, my fingers are trembling. I am feeling hot and cold at the same time. Getting ready and waiting for this plagiarism panel is the most stressful experience at University. But I shouldn’t feel like that. I am not the one that has been accused of plagiarism. This is not my panel. I am only here to give evidence in a case.
According to recent statistics published in the media, 50,000 students were accused of plagiarism in the last three years in the UK alone. Cutting and pasting from the internet as well as ghost writing companies are partly to blame, but in my view the issue goes a lot deeper.
Plagiarism is a socio-cultural issue.
Using the internet and googling is so ingrained in our daily lives that obtaining relevant information no longer feels like consulting sources, which it did back in the days when we used encyclopaedias. The very act of picking up a colossal book, laying it out on the table to then lift the book ends with both hands to get from the index to the correct page meant that consulting a source was as much an intellectual as a physical task. Nowadays, there is no hardship in tapping a screen and clicking a few buttons to get the answers we are seeking.
Secondly, and as a result of this ease of access to information students and the general public do not think of plagiarism as a serious offence. This reminds me of the video campaigns against internet piracy, where the voice-over and writing tells us that we wouldn’t steal somebody’s handbag, so why would we steal a film by copying a DVD illegally. Well, plagiarism is like that, too, in that it is passing off someone else’s work as your own. Cutting and pasting someone else’s words without referencing them is also stealing, but students do not see it that way. They usually know that it is not morally right, but as nobody comes to harm, they assume it is in a way acceptable. In order for plagiarism to stop, educating students about referencing and academic writing is therefore only half the story. Any plagiarism training must also include education about the offence itself and what it means to steal in that way.
Also, this is not just about stealing. This is also about academic integrity and the reputation of an institution and the degree that is awarded. I would not want to hold an academic degree that is devalued in such way that many people were able to cheat their way through it. And I would not want to be treated by a medical doctor who may have had a ghost writer provide the summative essays.
If Universities take this plagiarism training seriously and provide compulsory workshops about the types of plagiarism, about how to prevent misconduct and about what plagiarism actually means, then harsher lines can be taken, too. Currently, many students get away too lightly, they are given second and third chances, they are offered more support and guidance, and if they play by the rules in other exams and modules they could still graduate with distinctions despite the fact that one module or exam was subject to a plagiarism hearing.
Why should plagiarism be treated more harshly?
To me, the students are not punished, staff are. Once you suspect something wrong with an assignment, either because the software report comes out with an unusually high percentage of similarity or because as a marker you feel there is something odd about the assignment, a process begins that is time-consuming and nerve-wrecking for all staff involved. Firstly, there needs to be a detailed report, which is a form of several pages to be completed. As a marker and assessor you are constantly asking yourself if there is something you could have done differently to ensure plagiarism is avoided and students do submit their own work. This report gets sent on to the relevant quality assurance department who decide is how serious the allegations are and how the case should be treated. After another stage of scrutiny there may be a case for a hearing, and then there are the panel hearings. These hearings mean several members of academia will sit down together to identify the facts that led to the students passing someone else’s work off as their own. By this stage, valuable time of several academics and administrators has been wasted.
Whilst I believe in giving second chances, in this case it does feel unfair that I have to go through the stressful situation of a panel hearing where I have to justify that I did everything I possibly could to deter my students from stealing, whilst the accused themselves are often not even present. There is a huge amount of responsibility upon the shoulders of those deciding the fate of the students, they will feel the need to punish but at the same time to be fair and allow for students to complete their degrees and I certainly wouldn’t want to be in their position.
Do I think this epidemic can be stopped? I think it could be if all academic institutions were to take a similarly harsh line in outing the plagiarism offenders. Yes, people make mistakes, but as academic writing skills are taught and plagiarism is highlighted, there can no longer be deliberate cutting and pasting or employing ghost writers.
Twenty minutes after I was called into the meeting room, I am free to leave. I have told my side of the story. Am I content? No. Am I calmer? No. Ultimately, I am leaving the panel with more questions and self-doubt about what else it is we can do to make students understand and submit their own work.