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Proposing a model to address issues of plagiarism in Australian tertiary education

Timo Vuori, Richard Joseph and Raj Gururajan
Murdoch University

For the classroom teacher, student plagiarism has become a major issue, especially with the availability of much material on the Internet. Plagiarism is also associated with the public and marketing image of educational institutions, many of which fiercely protect these reputations with policies and posturing that claim the problem is under control. This paper explores some of the challenges facing tertiary education in Australia due to plagiarism. First, the notion of plagiarism is discussed and this is placed in the context of recent debates about it in Australian universities. Second, some of the implications of how Australian universities are approaching the problem, using Murdoch University as a example, are discussed. Third, three different conceptual standpoints on plagiarism are compared. The results of this comparison lead to the proposal of a model framed around the elements of risk, reward, morality and management. These elements are described briefly and some issues arising from them are identified, This paper makes the observation that plagiarism is not a simple matter of rule-bound definition: culture, circumstance and changing attitudes to the management of education interact to exacerbate the scope of the issue. Present policy responses favour short-term solutions, to what is, potentially, a problem deserving a considered, long term response.


Introduction

In academic circles in Australia, plagiarism is clearly becoming more than just an academic problem (Crowley, 1997). The international reputation of some universities is being brought into question as a result (Elliot, 2003). Despite these concerns, it appears that the problem is not abating. The extent of the problem is not confined to students either. For example, an Australian university Vice-Chancellor was forced to resign his job because a reference to plagiarism in his earlier work was reported to the university council (Madden, 2002).

While there is agreement among scholars and to some extent from students that the act of plagiarism should be condemned and penalised, what is not evident is the question 'does it constitute plagiarism?' The 'grey area' of plagiarism becomes evident in view of the fact that there is considerable disagreement in defining the scope of plagiarism. For example, Briggs (2003) suggests that copying a computer programming assignment is different from copying a research thesis work. Further, the question of deliberate intent and careless ignorance also arises while defining the scope of plagiarism.

Plagiarism in Australian universities

Recently, there have been a number of cases of plagiarism attracting attention from the media. The cases range from alleged plagiarism where material was directly copied from the Internet (Smith, 2003) to "soft marking" of student work (Elliot, 2003). Some of these cases have gained a significant amount of publicity and as such have been instrumental in tarnishing the reputation of the Australian higher education sector.

Currently, it is difficult to find statistics for the actual number of detected cases of plagiarism in Australian universities. A quick online search was conducted and the results show that only a few universities in Australia publish the statistics related to plagiarism online (QUT, 2003; USyd, 2003). It seems that the actual number of detected cases compared to student population is relatively low. To further complicate the issue in some instances it is university policy not to allow publishing of the results to protect the individuals involved (Sunday Program, 2003).

It is justified to assume that only the clear cases of plagiarism are reported as they are the ones lecturers can easily detect and provide evidence. This typically involves a direct cut and paste exercise from materials available online or other sources. Furthermore, increasing work loads have made it more difficult for academics to afford the time required to properly investigate plagiarism in student work. This increasing workload is clearly evident from the rising student staff ratios over the last decade. It is far easier and less time consuming to ignore it or pretend that plagiarism doesn't exist or matter and proceed marking the student work without considering from where the material is coming from or whose ideas are put forward.

Some even consider it a proper academic learning method (Spender, 2003) or even worse they don't themselves understand the issues involved in plagiarism. The casualisation of the academic workforce has in practice increased the number of non-academic and industry practitioners being involved in university teaching. They are often without proper induction to academic teaching and especially lacking the understanding or experience of the potential impact of plagiarism to students work.

There are many different reasons why students plagiarise (Zobel & Hamilton, 2002). In ideal settings students should be provided with a supportive structure to reduce the need to plagiarise. In addition, they should be provided with appropriate training to understand what is meant by plagiarism and how to incorporate references to other peoples work in a proper manner. In other words, ensuring that students have the basic skills required to incorporate other people's work and ideas to their own work and ideas would eliminate most of the cases currently considered to be plagiarised.

The policy response: Murdoch University

Following the public debate and publicly exposed cases of plagiarism in Australian academia, Murdoch University demonstrates a typical response to the plagiarism issue. It has updated its policy relating to plagiarism and implemented more uniform guidelines and centralised processing of suspected plagiarism cases. As a result, in 2003 in the Murdoch University Division of Arts, about 80 cases of plagiarism have so far been reported and in around 60 cases there was sufficient evidence available to substantiate plagiarism. Out of these cases three main categories of plagiarism have emerged. That is, one where there was a serious attempts to cheat the system by providing plagiarised assessments, two where improper use of referencing was the main issue and finally, sheer ignorance.

One of the main lessons learned so far is that it takes a lot of time and resources to prove and process a plagiarism case. If the number of detected plagiarism cases would suddenly rise (the assumption here is that a higher percentage of plagiarism would be detected, not that the actual amount of plagiarism increases) it would cause serious strain to the administrative processes. This is highlighted by a simple calculation.

Based on figures from the plagiarism website turnitin.com which reports that 36% of students admit to having plagiarised assignments, we use this as a guide to the level of plagiarism and assume that a university would have about 20 000 students. This suggests that there could be thousands of cases of undetected plagiarism annually. Obviously, it is difficult to place an actual percentage figure which provides an accurate level of plagiarism. It is reasonable to assume that the real figure is somewhat higher than the currently detected number of cases and perhaps not as high as proposed above. In any case, the number of undetected cases is significant enough to warrant further discussion on the topic.

Our experience in dealing with cases of plagiarism has highlighted the need for a comprehensive framework to be applied in academia. In addition, it should educate the students about plagiarism and how to avoid it, provide a significant deterrent to students, a supportive framework for staff to be able to detect and process the cases in effective manner, and an appropriate management structure to process the detected cases. It would seem that at some universities the comprehensive approach to plagiarism is not uniformly practiced and often a piecemeal approach is prevalent (Elliot, 2003; Pyvis, 2003). It is evident that sooner or later the piecemeal approach will fail and provide the media with new cases to expose. It can be argued that publicity regarding plagiarism cases presented in the media have initiated action in many universities in regards to providing more comprehensive policies how to deal with plagiarism in academia.

A typical approach from academia is to provide some introductory level education to students in referencing and using ideas which have been previously published by others. This training is far from comprehensive and is often only provided during the early stages of academic education. It is then assumed that students are fully skilled and capable of using appropriate referencing when required. It is clear from our experience that this approach to training is not as effective as it should be. It is far more effective to consider referencing as a skill and as such accept the facts that like any other skill it will take time to develop. This is further complicated by students varying level of skills when they start their university education. The practical implication of this is paramount. To eliminate plagiarism, education should play a major part. This education should be on-going throughout students' academic life. That said, there is no question that significant penalties should be in place for those students who, on purpose, continue to ignore accepted academic standards for whatever reason.

Conceptualising plagiarism

While clear-cut definitions of plagiarism are elusive, our aim in this section will be to present three related but different conceptualisations of plagiarism and from there draw some conclusions that, we feel, will advance understanding of this complex issue. Papers by Zobel and Hamilton (2002), Briggs (2003) and Martin (1994) are presented as examples.

Zobel and Hamilton (2002) present perhaps the most common or conventional interpretation of plagiarism. For them, it is a form of cheating. In their article they portray it as a bad thing that has to be stamped out. They present an interesting appreciation of the causes of plagiarism as a complex set of issues and through practical experience propose a management plan for its prevention. This involves staff and students in applying mechanisms to that effect: assignment design; verifiable submission; limitations of group work; and consistent penalties, to name but a few. In short, their approach is one of detection, policing and penalties: 'Managing plagiarism is an ongoing process' (Zobel and Hamilton, 2002, 30). It is probably somewhat trite to say that this interpretation largely reflects the approach taken by Australian university management to this problem.

Briggs (2003, p.19) is much more circumspect of the line adopted by Zobel and Harrison when he writes as follows.

In this respect, Justin Zobel and Margaret Hamilton's piece in the November issue of the Australian Universities Review (2002, pp. 23-30) is just one example of the call the take the issue of plagiarism seriously and to punish its perpetrators appropriately. It seems to me, however, that the rush to condemn acts of plagiarism risks riding roughshod over a problem that may turn out to be a far more complex - behaviourally, ethically, conceptually, and even linguistically - than has been previously granted.
For Briggs, the heavy-handed tone of moralising, emphasising cheating could actually exacerbate the problem rather than contribute to its resolution. A number of reasons are put forward by Briggs and these are paraphrased below:

In short, Briggs notes that instead of seeing plagiarism as a deliberate or accidental decision involving a moral choice, the problem is also a learning and communication problem too.

Martin (1994) adopts a more radial stance. He refers to plagiarism under two categories: competitive and institutionalised. As Martin notes

[Competitive plagiarism is] found in academic and intellectual circles... In this context, plagiarism is breaking the rules of the game, gaining undue credit in a competitive intellectual endeavour. Institutionalised plagiarism is a feature of systems of formal hierarchy, in which credit for intellectual work is more a consequence than a cause of unequal power and position. In bureaucracies, workers are conceived of as cogs in a formal system rather than independent intellectual producers: their work contributes of products of the bureaucracy; putting it in the name of bureaucratic elites is the formal procedure by which this occurs (Martin, 1994, 40).
Martin's view is that excessive emphasis on competitive plagiarism (a less serious problem) deflects attention away from the institutionalised variety. Putting greater emphasis on the latter could be quite subversive and challenging with the potential to expose the interests of the biggest intellectual exploiters (Martin, 1994, 44).

The contrasting of the three papers should indicate that the resolution of this issue, and its related policy outcomes, is not a simple matter. Evidence is the growing number of circumstances where university management intervenes in plagiarism cases somewhat clumsily, leading to accusations that universities' reputation in foreign markets is more valued than the desire to do the 'right thing' (Pyvis, 2002; Illing, 2003).

The way ahead, we believe, will depend on recognising plagiarism in a more complex way than that often presented by many Australian universities - a largely moral theme checked and balanced by policing, detection software and penalties. The current conventional approach is a direction that may appease short-term managerial objectives but will do little to achieve a deeper resolution. As a way of progressing debate, we believe, that by grouping some of the themes mentioned in the three papers discussed, an alternate view can be sustained. Table 1 groups some ideas under the categories of risk, reward, morality and management. There are of course overlaps in ideas between the categories we are putting forward.

Table 1: Plagiarism matrix

CategoryConcept
RiskPenalty; Cheating; Enforcement (Zobel and Harrison). Competitive (Martin)
RewardLearning; academic skill; writing (Briggs); Competitive (Martin).
MoralityCheating (Zobel and Harrison); Ethics versus Morality (Briggs).
ManagementInstitutionalised (Martin); Penalties (Zobel and Harrison); Detection (Zobel and Harrison)

These four categories are discussed below.

Despite all the complications in defining plagiarism and its scope, it appears that it is still possible to educate students and scholars in order to minimise the effects of plagiarism. In educational institutions, it appears that here are four elements influencing the theme of plagiarism. We loosely refer to these elements as a 'model'. They are; risk involved; rewards that can be obtained; morality issues; and management. We call this as the R2M2 concept. While the risk and the rewards are evident, the morality and the management are not so evident.

The risk of plagiarism involves, especially in academic circles, termination from programs, employment, reduced scores in a learning unit and perhaps some form of disgrace. The risks of plagiarism are usually linked to penalties and the stigma of being caught. What appears to be a complicated process is approving such penalties is the 'proof'. One way to even avoid reaching the risk (and hence penalty) stage in plagiarism is the 'reward' model. It appears that student and staff can be encouraged to acquire knowledge by highlighting the essential component and then allow them to demonstrate how they acquired the knowledge by incorporating various techniques including the traditional 'writing' component. An argument that favours this approach is that in an academic setting, most of the traditional assessment components involve the concept of 'writing' and by minimising the importance attached to this style of assessment, students can be encouraged to demonstrate their learning in many other ways. Supporting this idea is the emerging concept of 'alternative assessments'. While this concept sounds interesting, evaluation of one's work becomes difficult as there is no uniform guidelines and perhaps difficult to enforce in certain disciplines.

The third component in our model is 'morality'. This is directly linked to the moral behaviour of students and staff. The basis to this assumption is that the stakeholders involved in plagiarism are capable of understanding the appropriate levels of moral behaviour in acquiring knowledge and hence are responsible for their actions. However, it should be noted that the concept of plagiarism varies between disciplines and hence the judgment applied by individuals in these disciplines as to what constitutes a moral behaviour. Further, the skill component of referencing also becomes an issue and the adverse effects of plagiarism are usually linked to the skilful referencing capabilities of individuals or the lack of it. In our view, what is a 'moral' as opposed to an 'ethical' issue in plagiarism is open to confusion (Briggs, 2003).

The final component in the model we are proposing is management. In this case, we are not talking about the management of plagiarism but the involvement of the management in controlling the plagiarism. One aspect that is emerging is institutionalised plagiarism. Some examples that come to our mind include a recent dossier from the British Government Department, justifying their involvement in the Iraq war, which had plagiarised material from other sources (White and Whitaker, 2003). When this happens, in some cases, the impact has already been realised and very difficult to neutralise. What would be a suitable penalty? Indeed, does the public attention given to competitive plagiarism divert scrutiny way from institutionalised plagiarism? (Martin, 1994).

Conclusion

The recent discussions in media have certainly highlighted the impact a new technology, in this case the Internet, can have to existing issues in academia eg. plagiarism. In many cases Australian universities have reacted to issues presented by the media rather than been proactive in establishing appropriate frameworks to address the challenges presented by new technology. The danger of implementing reactive measures lays in missed opportunities to implement a comprehensive framework to resolve the issue. Plagiarism is far more than just breaking the rules of academic convention. It results from a complex interplay of forces (partly indicated by our proposed model). The institutional response to these pressures may reflect a mind-set that favours short-term responses. Our view is that there could be unintended consequences from this neglect, leading to serious long term costs. These costs relate to trying to undo patterns of behaviour that have been allowed to go on for too long.

References

Briggs, R. (2003). Shameless! Reconceiving the problem of plagiarism. Australian Universities Review, 46(1), 19-23.

Crowley, F. (1998). Degrees galore: Australia academic teller machines. F. Crowley, 48 Clifton Drive, Port Macquarie, NSW (self-published book).

Elliot, T. (2003). Top in enterprise, bottom in integrity. Financial Times (London), 2 June, 13.

Illing, D. (2003). Legal action threat over plagiarism. The Australian, 16 July, 29.

Madden, J. (2002). Professor's job tied to Monash reputation. The Australian, 10 July.

Martin, B. (1994). Plagiarism: A Misplaced Emphasis. Journal of Information Ethics, 3(2), 36-47.

Pyvis, D. (2002). Plagiarism and Managerialism. Australian Universities Review, 45(2), 31-36.

QUT (2003). The BGSB position on Plagiarism & Cheating. [verified 20 June 2004] http://www.bgsb.qut.edu.au/currentstud/policyprocedures/plagcheat.jsp

Spender, D. (2003). Where's the disgrace if you cut and paste? The Australian, August 20.

Smith, A. (2003). The darkening shadow of stolen words. The Age, August 24.

Sunday [program transcript] (2003). The Newcastle plagiarism scandal. [verified 20 June 2004] http://sunday.ninemsn.com.au/sunday/political_transcripts/transcript_1352.asp

USyd (2003). Teaching and Learning Committee Agenda. [verified 20 June 2004] http://www.usyd.edu.au/su/ab/committees/TLCommittee/2003/Jul03_agenda.pdf

White, M. and Whitaker B. (2003). UK war dossier a sham, say experts. The Guardian, 7 February. [verified 20 June 2004] http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,890916,00.html

Zobel, J. and M. Hamilton (2002). Managing student plagiarism in large academic departments. Australian Universities Review, 45(2), 23-30. http://www.nteu.org.au/freestyler/gui/files/file3e24f50f9f1fd.pdf

Authors: Timo Vuori, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University. Email: T.Vuori@murdoch.edu.au

Richard Joseph, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University. Email: R.Joseph@murdoch.edu.au

Raj Gururajan, School of Information Technology, Murdoch University. Email: R.Gururajan@murdoch.edu.au

Please cite as: Vuori, T., Joseph, R. and Gururajan, R. (2004). Proposing a model to address issues of plagiarism in Australian tertiary education. 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/vuori.html


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