Thursday, April 14, 2011

Plagiarism and the importance of learning how to write

Just over a year ago I took over as secretary to my university's academic misconduct committee. As a university level committee it only deals with the most serious cases of plagiarism, cheating in exams and other forms of misconduct so if it makes it to us, it's either pretty bad, or pretty complicated, or both. As an aside to my normal international work I find it a refreshing change and both an interesting and challenging addition to my job.

Some students are what I would call out and out 'chancers', they fully know and understand the rules but they have made a calculated decision to break them anyway. They have normally done something fairly daring, and they always continue to deny any wrongdoing no matter how damning the evidence against them...

'Just because my dissertation is 86% the same as this other one, with only the country in the study changed and my dedication page, I still don't see how you can say I've plagiarised'. 

'No, I composed the survey questions and conducted the analysis on my organisation entirely myself. It is purely co-incidental that the questions and data are exactly the same as in that published report'

These, I have no sympathy for and I am pleased when the committee throws the proverbial book at them. However, they actually make up the minority of our serious misconduct in coursework cases - perhaps as little as one in ten. The majority of students fall into one of two other categories: ran out of time and panicked or really just didn't get what we expected from them and what academic writing is all about. We can try and help the first bunch by staggering deadlines, compulsory submission of drafts etc. but its the second lot that really makes me worried - because isn't it one of the fundamental qualities employers need in graduates the ability to write well?

Of course when I say write, I mean all the critical thinking and analysis that goes behind it as well - it all goes hand in hand. The opportunity and encouragement to truly learn to write was one of the greatest gifts given to me in my undergraduate arts degree. I was by no means the perfect student - I didn't do all my reading, didn't turn up for all my seminars. But I was lucky enough to be studying something that would regularly touch on areas that really piqued my interest. So I'd pick my essay topics carefully and dive in to the primary and secondary sources with gusto - trying to pull them apart and put them back together to make the argument I wanted to make. Goodness knows if you ran one of my first year essays through Turnitin you might find some fairly 'poor academic practice' but through understand my marks through feedback and by the process of writing itself, my maturity as a student grew and by the end of my degree I really loved writing.

Not every student is going to start out and progress of their own accord with the minimum of specific help like I did. I had a fantastic foundation laid for me by certain teachers at school and most of all my mother, who proofread and commented on endless pieces of GCSE and A-level coursework. For many however, who lack those foundations, and perhaps a particular passion for their subject of study, it seems like going to university is just going through the motions or just too baffling a new universe to comprehend. Maybe if we were more creative at the start of degrees, in introducing materials and topics that are more likely to spark interest, and in doing so introduce them to the art of academic writing rather than just giving them lessons on referencing styles and baffling them with our official definition of plagiarism.

In US universities I think its almost universally compulsory for students in their first year or two to take 'freshman composition' classes - for tales of this see the blog College Ready Writing, in particular the recent post about using Fahrenheit 451 in an exercise about developing a central argument in essays.

This level of attention to developing students as scholars and writes takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. Often it just seems easier to say - 'well we print study guides and run sessions if they want them', 'well they should have learnt this at A-level' or 'if they don't understand UK higher education we shouldn't let them in'. I feel that this is just abdicating our responsibility for actively developing our students. Its always argued that students need to be active learners, but before that can happen at the start of the process we need to be active teachers.