In today’s world of increased connectivity and continuous technological advances it seems easier than ever for students to plagiarise or cheat their way through examinations and assignments. Recently, three students were banned from re-sitting an entrance examination to a medical college in Thailand, as they had been caught cheating using modern technology, such as camera glasses and smartwatches. A few days after this incident made the news, another article reported about how Marek Jezek, an MBA and PhD graduate cannot find work in universities and therefore has turned to writing bespoke essays for money.
With the increased use of plagiarism detecting software at universities students look to new ways of cheating, and it seems there is a whole industry that is more than happy to comply. Nearly a year ago, Adele Thomas highlighted the issues of ghost writers and recommended that universities look at reducing class sizes, changing assessment structures, establishing a clear framework of consequences once a student has been found guilty of cheating behaviours and finally, establishing a culture of integrity. And therein lies the issue.
In a way, it is all too easy to put the blame on the cheating students; in a way, it is not even surprising that students reach to drastic measures to ensure they get the degree they are paying a lot of money for. It is the role of the universities that needs to be considered here. I fully empathise with the graduate who cannot find work, but to resolve to writing essays as a form of revenge only devalues academic work and ultimately entire degrees.
It is difficult for universities to keep up with such extensive schemes. Most universities offer academic writing support, teach referencing skills and offer tools such as RefMe or Refworks to support students’ referencing. Whilst this assistance is certainly necessary, plagiarism and cheating can only be prevented in the long-term if we include a debate on professional values and academic integrity.
Within academia we are working on developing a culture of shared practice and common understanding, but do we always reference each other’s contributions carefully and in detail? What about when we share resources, such as PowerPoint slides are the original authors fully acknowledged? What about those supervisors and mentors within academia whose names appear first on the published article? It may well be that the supervisors undertook the majority of the work and led the projects, but there are articles where this is not the case. And it is this debate that we need to have.
The leading university where Marek Jezek finished his MBA and PhD appears to have failed to instil the right professional values and integrity, as Marek does not seem to see anything wrong about writing assignments for students, in fact, he puts the blame on the students, the industry and the universities themselves.
When students submit assignments most universities require a signed originality statement. The wording may be different from one institute to another, but it is always to the effect of the student confirming the work being his/her own and not having been submitted previously or to another course or module. This is certainly a good starting point. But how much time is allocated to teaching and discussing this statement? How many students have genuinely read and reflected on what it is they sign? Isn’t it more likely that students sign the paper in the same way we enter purchasing contracts with online companies, where you cannot really disagree with the terms and conditions anyway.
In a plagiarism prevention workshop a colleague and I have developed and run together the discussion of this statement forms an important part and students formulate their own integrity codes. According to Rosalind Janssen the key aspect of the integrity codes is that we engage students as partners in their education and hand over responsibility for and ownership of their conduct.
Naturally, the development of and change to institutional culture requires time and will probably be more effective with strong leadership from the top. After all, it has already been shown that lecturers’ attitudes towards plagiarism strongly influence student behaviours regarding cheating.
Therefore, all academics should make a start within their own practices and leading by example from within. If every academic is honest about what he/she achieves, where limitations are and how collaborative practices have helped develop ideas, the institutional culture will change and filter down to the students.