Plagiarism at university is a time-old scourge. Some would have us believe it can be sought out with ever-improving technology, and with more consistent vetting of student essays with the latest detection software. But beneath these appeals to superior forensic intelligence lies an unhappy fallacy — that a technological fix can address a moral problem.
Picture by Stuart Pilbrow
It is amazing that we have so much faith in code; but in the face of human nature, the trust in sophisticated digital surveillance is naïve. Text-matching software functions well in detecting word-for-word plagiarism but works poorly with paraphrase.
It also works on the assumption that there is a unique language in the world, which is English, or at least that all students have no access to material in other languages.
You might think that the tangible presence of students from non-English speaking backgrounds would serve as a reminder to exclusive anglophones that great works of scholarship are likely to be written prolifically in other languages; but belief in technology seduces us with an insular fantasy and makes us avert the gaze.
If I want to plagiarise and I read other languages, you won’t catch me with your computer. Ironically, the computer helps me but not you: it lets me locate the texts in foreign languages just as easily as it finds them in English.
Once I have the text that I need for enhancing my essay, I will render it in English in a way that will not reveal the original. Morally, it is plagiarism. But from a technical point of view, the text will appear as mine. It is plagiarism beneath the knowledge radar.
Students are just as resourceful as academics in the matter of plagiarism. Forensic tools are largely futile against much dishonest practice, which continues and proliferates like mutant bacteria in response to antibiotics. Essay mills, for example, will always be one step ahead of the plagiarism-detection software.
While some plagiarism detection software is conceived as helping students identify their own peccadilloes — as if committed inadvertently — the technological campaign to monitor and root out plagiarism is reminiscent of the war on drugs, where a large investment in cameras and dog-squads yields negligible returns in expunging the abhorred dependency.
We chase students as if they are crooks instead of looking at why students are tempted to plagiarise.
Worst of all, the policing strategy inadvertently creates risk by appealing to the gaming mentality of young students who are used to such challenges in their favourite entertainment. In many video games, the player can get ahead by risky deceptions which cheat the system. When we set up a firewall, we provide cunning students with an incentive to get around it.
And given that the many ways to avoid detection are obvious to this artless author, we can only imagine what tech-savy students can think up. By installing a digital trap, we will only catch the least savvy and in an unfortunate inversion of justice, we reward the most guileful.
As moral instructors, we could hardly do a worse job. A symbol of these ineffective strategies — and our fantasies of control over the situation — is the cover-sheet which must be attached to essays in most universities.
These documents show the plagiarism policy and demand students sign to testify that the essay is the student’s own work. As we know, this cover-sheet does not prevent plagiarism; and we have no evidence that it even reduces plagiarism with its menace of deterrents.
For students who plagiarise, all that the cover-sheet achieves is to create a further crime. Instead of merely dishonestly filching some text, students perjure themselves as a result of having to put their signature on a claim to originality. This added crime of fraud is effectively caused by the misguided stratagem to prevent dishonesty.
Investing in greater policing, superior technology and stiffer penalties makes a dubious contribution to risk management and possibly has a negative impact on student morale and the spirit of the institution.
Because plagiarism is a technologically-assisted form of cheating, it seems to indicate a technological solution; but this connection is not logical, given that cheating can occur in numerous non-technological ways and good or bad conduct is not in itself a technological phenomenon.
Moral conduct is a cultural construct and is perhaps not best defined and protected by technology. Instead a widespread consciousness within a community and a social mood are needed in which “right” is expected, talked about, prized and thought of with pride. Toward this cultural end, there is little merit in watching over people with more intrusive and threatening surveillance.
Alas, we approach plagiarism with a vengeance, and not just to guard our reputation. Beyond making a fool of the sages, plagiarism is an indictment of the way that we communicate educational goals.
Students should feel deeply that their time at university is about learning, and consequently that any short-cut in learning short-changes their priceless development. Plagiarism is proof that these ideals have not been passed on.
And finally, where it ought to be more fun to learn than to cheat, plagiarism reveals that the necessary joy has not been cultivated.
It is a slight against our teacher’s pride, and of course, we resent it. Better, I think, to swallow our pride and work positively on the ethos of honesty and joy in learning, rather than putting angry misplaced faith in a digital deus ex machina.
Robert Nelson is Associate Director of Student Experience at Monash University, and receives funding from the OLT.