|Teaching and Learning Forum 2004 [ Proceedings Contents ]|
Curtin University of Technology
This paper describes preliminary research into what motivates students to plagiarise. Its hypothesis is that most cases of what is identified as plagiarism - faulty referencing, poor paraphrasing, and excessive cut and pasting - are symptoms of students' difficulty in engaging with academic discourse and finding an authentic scholarly voice. The paper presents an analysis and discussion of data from a survey and focus groups. On the basis of this preliminary research, it suggests that what is needed to address plagiarism is not better detection and punishment but teaching that stimulates engagement and helps students develop an appropriate scholarly voice.
Because the survey was aimed at soliciting students' spontaneous rather than conditioned responses, it was decided to ask the survey question at the beginning of seminars that were not themselves related to citing or referencing. The seminars chosen were those addressing exam preparation and exam techniques; these seminars attract a wide diversity of students, and it was felt that their responses might be more generally representative than a group who had identified their need for assistance in plagiarism related areas of study. Eighty-eight out of the ninety students present agreed to participate in the survey. Of these, eighty-three were undergraduate students (fifty-two international and thirty-one local), and five were international postgraduate coursework students. They came from a diversity of discipline areas.
In light of current concern and controversy over plagiarism and of the amount of institutional energy that has been put into warning students of the consequences of failing to acknowledge and reference sources, the difficulty in eliciting students' candid responses had to be factored into the research design. Informality and assured anonymity were considered the key to overcoming students' reticence.
Initially, the students were asked if they understood what is meant by the term 'plagiarism', and all affirmed that they did, commenting that the University's policy on plagiarism is included in Unit Outlines of all academic units being delivered. Each student was given a plain sheet of paper on which they were asked to write the main reason for student plagiarism. Two students chose to abstain, but the remaining eighty-eight responded, and, while some written responses commented on the motivation of other students, many made disclosures that clearly came from personal experience.
These eighty-eight comments were coded under seven headings as in Table 1.
|Difficulty with the topic||18|
|Poor time management||18|
|Ignorance/inadequate referencing skills||15|
|Fear of failure||8|
They are desperate to pass and are unable to come up with their own ideas.A common factor in students' fear of failure is the fear of falling short of parental expectations. In the focus group discussions, a Malaysian second year Information Systems student explained his own predicament:
I cannot fail a unit because my father cannot send my younger brother to be educated until I graduate. If I stay close to what the textbook says I think I will not be much wrong.The focus of such students is on their goal of a particular grade to pass a subject or meet quota requirements. From an educational perspective, the fact that they are not sufficiently engaged to interrogate and cognitively reprocess what they read should perhaps be of more concern than their inept textual appropriation. Drilling them in correct referencing techniques does not address the primary source of their difficulty; it does not help them to develop as intrinsically motivated 'deep' learners (Deci et al, 1991).
Students plagiarise because they don't have self confidence,These comments reveal students' aversion to risk; they fear that using their own words may expose their inadequate understanding of the texts. Like the students in category two, these students tend to approach assignments with the narrowly pragmatic objective of gaining a pass mark, rather than the more authentic educational objective of testing their own understanding and learning from constructive critical feedback.
When uncertain, use the expert words.
Other comments suggest that many students struggle to grasp concepts in their reading, and this difficulty is compounded by their lack of cognitive sophistication to re-articulate them in an academically appropriate way. The following two comments are representative:
Unable to explain a topic's content, so they copy it word for word,There was also a disturbing prevalence of comments that suggest many students feel they are out of their intellectual depth, and no amount of personal effort will change the situation:
Students sometimes have the wrong understanding but the textbook is always correct.
Questions/problems given in the assignment are beyond student's ability,Since expectation of success is a crucial component of motivation leading to actual success (Feather, 1982; Biggs & Moore, 1993), these students are at a serious disadvantage. In the focus group discussions, a number of students shared with the group their own experiences of panic when faced with assignment briefs they did not understand and could not easily relate to what they had learned in lectures, tutorials, and set readings. The mature age students in the regional focus group, in particular, expressed the difficulty they sometimes experienced in 'getting a handle on what is expected in assignments'. In teasing out this problem further, the group agreed that more guidance through modelling and clear, directive feedback from lecturers would enable them to focus on key concepts in the topic. From their discussion, it was clear that markers' comments on assignments tended to focus on the more easily identified superficial errors rather than on substantive issues. This applied to referencing, too; marks were being deducted for misplaced brackets and italics in bibliographies, but dilemmas about when, how, and how much to quote, paraphrase, or appropriate were not adequately addressed.
Another reason is the lecturer/tutor that gave them a lot of pressure to be able to write above their standards/ability.
It's really confusing. We're told we need to research and not rely on our own ideas and then we're told our essays have to be original and not rely just on what we've read.At issue here is the process through which students develop their own scholarly authorial voice. It is a complex, organic, cumulative process that requires students to read widely within their disciplines and to have the opportunity to discuss with lecturers and peers the ways in which experienced writers evaluate, discriminate, select, compare, contrast, and integrate existing ideas into writing that offers a new or individually held perspective. In other words, genre modelling and genre analysis have much to offer (Swales, 1990); however, none of the students in the focus groups had been exposed to generic approaches.
Another aspect of the difficulty students experience in producing writing that is simultaneously well-informed and 'in their own words' is paraphrasing. This was highlighted in such survey responses as:
They do not understand how to rearrange the structure of the sentences correctly.Focus group discussion confirmed the prevalence of the misconception among students (especially among students whose first language is other than English) that paraphrasing is essentially a process of omitting and changing words in the text, rather than the intellectual assimilation, reprocessing, and rearticulation of source material (Ventola, 1996).
Sometimes authors put the ideas down really well and it is hard to think of a different way.
In the focus groups a number of first language English users disclosed that they had most difficulty reading 'boring' and 'abstract' texts, which suggests that interest in and engagement with the text is a significant determinant of effective critical reading and, in turn, scholarly textual appropriation. The survey respondents recognised difficulties for both first and second language users in expressing or re-articulating ideas and concepts in a cognitively as well as linguistically sophisticated way. Typical comments were:
Lack academic vocabulary,It was also noted that students whose first language is other than English require more time to reprocess source material into their 'own words' because they need to consult dictionaries and English grammar books. As one respondent wrote,
Agree with what the author says but due to lack of English unable to put in your own words,
When they try to put it in their own words they lose the meaning.
English not a first language, much quicker to copy than to work out how to write something.In the focus groups, a number of students suggested that the trend towards shorter semesters was exacerbating this problem of time pressure:
It's really hard for international students to digest everything covered in such a short period and then have to write it up in a language that isn't their first language. There isn't enough time.
Doing assignments on the eve of the due date, not enough time to layout your own thoughts,In the focus groups, most international students accepted a 'blame the student' perspective (Biggs, 1999), while local students were more likely to be critical of lecturers and the curriculum. Both groups, however, felt that under pressure it was 'Ok to cut and paste as long as you give reference details'. A part time first year Education student's comment summed up what many students had stated more obliquely:
Heavy work loads,
Just not enough time to do the assignment at a high level.
When it comes to assignments all my time is taken up with understanding the concepts and terms and getting them right, so I don't have enough time for proper paraphrasing and things like that. We're given a sheet with referencing requirements, but some things I don't understand and lecturers don't have time to explain.
They're just being lazy in thinking,In many comments, however, it was clear that respondents perceived 'laziness' in terms less of personal indolence than of taking shortcuts. Typical comments were:
Because it is easy, simple, no need to think.
The main reason I think students plagiarise is laziness ... they want information quickly so they find something and copy it,A number of students in the focus groups was suggested that although students may be aware of what is required in citing, acknowledging and referencing, many find the process tedious and 'annoying', perceiving it as ancillary rather than integral to academic writing. The analogy was offered that
May be shortcut to finishing the study,
It is a quick and easy way to produce assignments.
If you can catch the bus to go from A to B, why walk?
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|Author: Dr Jeanne Dawson|
Student Learning Support Unit
Learning Support Network
Curtin University of Technology
GPO Box 1987 Perth WA 6845
Please cite as: Dawson, J. (2004). Plagiarism: What's really going on? In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/dawson.html