The Battle Against Plagiarism

The furore over the blog post of Panagiotis Ipeirotis, a NYU Stern Professor, who vowed not to pursue cheating again (read the report here), is understandable. Cheating is seen as possibly the worst offence possible in a class environment, which undermines the trust between the teacher and the student, and makes all academic effort irrelevant. In my own experience, when I was given the responsibility of running the MBA programme in the college I work for, cheating was common, often perversely common. The colleagues in the MBA team wanted to do something about it, but didn't know where to start. Though there were clear guidelines on what to do with cheating, they were so punitive - mostly leading to an exit from the course - that the administration team will often desist from taking the final step. What made matters worse was the immigration policy: The UK Borders Agency mandates drop-out rates to be kept within 11% of the class, which is an unattainably low number for an adult education college primarily dependent on international students. And, somehow, the definition of drop-out was expanded to include all those who exit the course ahead of the scheduled time without an award: Understandably, the course team seemed unwilling to call cheating unless it was absolutely apparent.

The problem with such approach that this legitimizes cheating and therefore, undermines the whole academic process. This is the argument I used to focus minds on cheating. First, I argued that if we turn a blind eye to cheating, no one will bother attending classes, another UK Border Agency requirement for the international students we have. In fact, the college itself will stop bothering about class quality and go for incompetent tutors, who would rather tolerate cheating and try to get their students through. The whole model, in effect, will degenerate, and the signs were there. Second, passing someone's work as one's own is not the standard of behaviour we want to encourage in our students. Intellectual honesty is key to the process of learning, and without it, I would argue, there is no point in trying to train anyone at all.

I have noted with interest the reason why Professor Ipeirotis does not want to focus on cheating is because it lowers the academic achievement. But this seems quite dubious and an attempt to put academic achievement ahead of academic honesty, the same box of tricks we blame banks for using. It seems strange that he seemed to think that the drop in academic achievement is due to his focus on cheating, when it could be due to a number of reasons, including the way he was handling the cheating cases.

I am certain that a huge amount of time in any teaching institution goes onto catching the cheats, when the methods have become increasingly sophisticated and practices widespread. The sophistication of search engines and translation tools have made it quite difficult even for software like Turnitin to catch plagiarism. I have recently had a case where it sailed through the system but was caught later by a vigilant examiner as he spotted the dissertation was an exact replica of something written in Swedish; the student admitted that he used a translation software to translate the material and then only corrected the English. Catching this was surely a fluke, but an institution must make every attempt to stamp out plagiarism, and must therefore look beyond Turnitin. This, I shall accept, puts a strain on an organization's resource and distract the tutors from tutoring, precisely the point Professor Ipeirotis is trying to make. However, a stretch on resources is not a reason for allowing an obnoxious practice: Few people will agree to a government taking its eye off burglary because there is less money for policing (precisely the kind of discussion we are now having in Britain).

So I think we can't afford to take the eye off the cheating problem, but given the size of the challenge, we must look new ways to fight the problem. Turnitin is a good start, but it is not sufficient. I think one should start with the institutional culture: Emphasis on outcome, the degree, rather than the process, learning and knowledge, where this problem always starts. The suggestions to make coursework more social is welcome, but that will surely not solve the problem. The implicit requirement of academic honesty is up against another value which is equally ingrained, that the performance, and performance alone, matters.


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