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Breaking bad on faking fad

Plagiarism is crystal meth to academia; and with fraud once again in the national headlines, it’s timely to take a look at its real causes, and the role academics can play in limiting it. 

The doctor changed my medication. I can’t manage four subjects in a semester. I just had a baby. I haven’t been sleeping well. I accidentally uploaded my friend’s assignment from the hard drive at work. You are wrong because no one has questioned my referencing throughout my degree. There are references in my essay. What’s the problem?

Student justifications for plagiarism differ as much as the sources from which they steal their ideas. When discovered, they cry, shout, deny and – most frequently – express deep embarrassment. There are reasons for these extreme responses.

If libraries are the cranium of our schools and universities, then plagiarism is crystal meth. It degrades, demeans, shames, undermines and decays the project of teaching and learning.

Plagiarism is a concern in higher education, but it is also a folk devil. It has always existed. It will always exist. Whilst digitisation makes plagiarism easier and faster to achieve, it also makes it easier to detect. Plug-ins and applications check a script within moments of submission. Any suspicion of similarity can be checked by a marker through a search engine.

Through the last decade, plagiarism has been transformed into academic misconduct. That shift in language allows a subtle differentiation between collusion, poor referencing, the use of the paper mills and ripping from Wikipedia.

There are three relatively distinct causes for academic misconduct. These are distinguished by the ability and intent of the student:

  •  Students who possess limited academic literacies and do not know how to reference. They confuse paraphrasing with plagiarism. Often this group have no understanding of how to cite and quote scholarship.
  • Students who fear failure. Under-confident students, cramped by financial or familial pressure, lift entire sections of an argument so they do not make a mistake or risk receiving a low mark.
  • A minority of students are academically dishonest. Collusion and the purchase of assignments from paper mills fall into this category.

The phrase ‘academic integrity’ is increasingly used to intervene and transform this intellectual culture of inaccuracy, sloppy thinking or theft. This change in vocabulary captures a movement from punishment and retribution (misconduct) to the acquisition of scholarly protocols (integrity). It also shifts the culture of blame and shame from the students and onto their teachers. Through assignments such as annotated bibliographies, problems can be diagnosed early in a degree before the arrival of a warning letter, caution or reprimand.

Teachers hold a pivotal role in mitigating plagiarism. Academics can make it very easy for students to rip, remix and steal their way through a degree.

Laziness in curricula design and assessment are primary triggers for academic misconduct. Some subjects have multiple cases of plagiarism each semester. The cause is simple: academics ask for ‘summaries’ of book chapters or films, resulting in inexperienced students blurring the line between paraphrasing and plagiarism.

Academics can control the degree of plagiarism by changing the assessment each year. Develop innovative relationships between artefacts and exegeses. Use hyper-local topics, questions and ideas, avoiding the possibility of downloading a paper from a North American or British paper mill. Do not assign textbooks. Demand the use of very distinctive – and current – readings. Most importantly, teachers can model scholarly behaviour for students, displaying intellectual generosity and the value of reading and writing.

Widening participation in higher education demands that academics not only maintain high standards in our universities, but also develop differentiated pathways to attaining excellence and achievement. If students did not attend a school that encouraged wide reading, interpretation and evocative writing, then it is necessary for universities to scaffold these skills into assignments.

We as teachers must address our assumptions to ensure that students understand the nature of academic research. Academic integrity is a skill to be taught, not an innate ability. Whilst upholding standards, we must provide an environment of compassion and support. Plagiarism may be the crystal meth of higher education, but our students are not extras from the cast of Breaking Bad.

I finish with one student’s story. She had just delivered a baby and an odd assignment. Her teacher was judicious, changing the assignments each year. The student wrote an answer addressing the previous year’s question. Software did not reveal a match. Instead, the teacher asked why she had addressed the topic from an earlier semester. The student admitted to ‘borrowing’ the assignment from a friend.

Children screamed in the background of the phone call where the student revealed her misconduct. She was exhausted. Through a subsequent investigation, she received a reprimand and zero for that subject.

This is not the end of the tale. The student was so humiliated, she wanted to withdraw from the degree. She had only two subjects left to complete to graduate. She was disgusted at her behaviour and shattered with stress. Whilst we demonise the plagiarizers, once a punishment is delivered, it is important to separate the behaviour from the scholar. Attention to academic content must include a recognition of context, not to mitigate the penalty, but to understand and address the cause.

Professor Tara Brabazon is the head of Charles Sturt University’s School of Teacher Education. 

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