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Delusions of candour: why technology won’t stop plagiarism

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…

Plagiarism is happening at universities, but technology is not the way to solve the problem. Computer image from

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.

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.

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23 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Thank you for the very thoughtful article Robert.

    '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.'

    Perhaps this is somewhat idealistic, both about students and the rewards that undergraduate research can bring? When I was at uni we were all pretty slack, and assignments were just a drag.

  2. Jack Arnold


    Ahhhhh plagiarism ... so easily avoided ... simply follow the methodology of my supervisor some 30 years ago before the Plagiarism Laws ... refer to the chosen work in the first paragraph then paraphrase the thesis ... made a good peer reviewed article that counted towards his pension.

  3. Jack Arnold


    Then in a later thesis situation ... a student colleague paid a very experienced local English teacher, not their supervisor, to edit their work .... this was accepted by the course co-ordinator professor ... even though the 'editing' was effectively a complete re-write of that chapter.

    Somehow I was under the old-fashioned misconception that a thesis was the work of a student to train them how to write academically for publication. The supervisor's work was to offer editorial assistance in preparation of the thesis.

    Silly me ... money buys everything ... even academic credibility.

    1. Michael Lenehan


      In reply to Jack Arnold

      how quaint are these notions of yours. in my experience students who don't plagiarise are old-fashioned like a dowry and unusual like nice police

  4. Dirk Baltzly

    Professor of Philosophy at University of Tasmania

    There is clearly a sense in which detecting unacknowledged quotations via Turn-it-in or Damocles is closing the gate after the horse has bolted. There may nonetheless be good pragmatic reasons to close that gate, and I doubt that Nelson would deny that. But he's asking the important question: 'How could we avoid getting to that point in the first place?'

    Here's one suggestion: the much-discussed teaching-research nexus. Whatever else this might mean, it at least ought to involve this: exhibiting…

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  5. Christopher White

    PhD candidate at La Trobe University

    Who says it's just students? When writing a paper in my undergraduate years, I came across an excellent quote from a well known and respected scholastic researcher in the field, but failed at the time to record the source. When I returned to do an internet search for it, I was surprised to find the same words in an earlier document.

    Upon investigation, I found that almost the entire paper from the respected scholastic researcher had been copied pretty much word-for-word from a doctoral thesis…

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    1. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Christopher White

      sad but true - its not restricted to students.

      University of Alberta medical school dean resigns after plagiarizing speech.

      medical students "called him out for lifting large parts of his speech at their graduation banquet from a famous address made by world-renowned surgeon Atul Gawande.''

      "The speech was published in 'The New Yorker' magazine last year and many had read it. One graduate said his brother found the original speech on 'The New Yorker' website during the banquet and was following along with Dr. Baker word for word." -a.v.

  6. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    Of course TurnItIn isn't the perfect solution. But like most deterrents, it does help to deter a portion of the would-be offenders, as well as to provide evidence in cases that are being prosecuted. I still find cases of plagiarism that aren't picked up by the software but that I detect myself simply from gut feeling that a particular student probably wouldn't have used a certain choice of words off their own bat. And yes, sometimes this turns out to have come a foreign language translation. One is left with the feeling that if as much effort was out into an honest attempt as seems to be put into cheating, the student would have had a better mark.

    Where it all falls down is where they hit the invigilated exam at the end of the semester...

  7. mixmaxmin

    logged in via Twitter

    Great article. I do not suggest plagiarism ought to be condoned or tolerated, but as devil's advocate how can one expect at the average level - I mean not at the cutting edge - to have hundreds of thousands of students producing ongoing original ideas on the same subject/topic; am I missing something here? Perhaps what some argue is morally correct is just a gate keeping mechanism, wouldn't be the first time such a gambit is employed to maintain the status quo.

    1. Isabel Jackson

      PhD Researcher at The University of Melbourne

      In reply to mixmaxmin

      Hi mixmaxmin,

      Good point, however, that is not the purpose of much of undergraduate work, at least in the Arts, and I think this is what Robert Nelson was referring to in part.

      The purpose of the majority of assessment tasks is for students to demonstrate their understanding of the material covered in that particular subject. Certainly at my university, and I suspect many others, 'plagarism' includes students recycling their own material from other subjects. I agree absolutely with what Matt…

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    2. Isabel Jackson

      PhD Researcher at The University of Melbourne

      In reply to Isabel Jackson

      Mat Hardy: I liked your comments so much I misspelled your name! Whoops; so much for accuracy in referencing!

  8. Chris Lloyd

    Professor of Business Statistics, Melbourne Business School at University of Melbourne

    I enjoyed the first 75% of this article, expecting that the author was leading to some new approach. He came up with ….communicating education goals better to students so that they see the value in not cheating.

    Would he suggest the same method for eliminating drugs in sport? The problem and dynamics there are completely analogous. Most athletes realize that cheating makes the whole exercise pointless. But sport has become a business with big payoffs at the end. So the pool of athletes is a mixture…

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    1. Chris McGrath

      Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Chris Lloyd

      I agree Chris. Robert's analysis is too black-and-white. I agree with much of what he says, including emphasising the joy of learning, but this is a complex problem that requires multiple strategies to address it. No response will ever be perfect but coversheets and plagarism software have a role to play. If nothing else, they serve roles in educating students and as deterrents.

    2. Robert Nelson

      Associate Director Student Experience at Monash University

      In reply to Chris McGrath

      These comments and many below are very helpful and represent well the spread of approaches to a perplexing problem. Chris' reference to athletes is clever and telling. If only it were so simple as getting our students to do wee-wee and checking out their honesty! Alas, our samples, to pursue the analogy, are unreliable and only let us sniff out the ones who have no clue how to conceal the drugs.

      If the software and deterrents had as much substance as drug testing, there may be less argument…

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  9. Tim Comber

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I get the feeling that many recent developments are just ticking the boxes rather than genuine attempts to deal with problems. TurnItIn - check, student feedback - check, staff portfolios - check, graduate objectives - check, learning objectives - check and so on. At the end of the day the executive can say that all the boxes are checked, what a good uni we are!

  10. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    I LOVE reading about academics complaining about plagiarism.

    Stop the flood of unreproducible scientific publications churned out of university laboratories and then you can start worrying about undergraduates lifting chunks of text from wikipedia. Look, if someone rewords something so that it can't be picked up by text-matching software it is essentially their own work anyway - at least in terms of the standards expected of undergraduates. You don't expect undergraduates to produce original…

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  11. Patrick Stokes

    Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

    Turnitin has its obvious limitations, and as noted the really egregious cases are the ones that Turnitin won't catch. As per Mat's comment above, knowing your students and being alert to anything incongruous seems to be the best defence available in that case, but it's hardly perfect.

    What Turnitin *is* good for though is helping to identify students who simply don't understand what's expected of them. I've occasionally had students who seemed genuinely hurt and bewildered when we pull them up…

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  12. Paul A Whitelaw

    Senior Lecturer in Hospitality Operations

    Hi Robert,
    thanks for your contribution. Certainly plagiarism is more a cultural than technical problem.

    Are you aware of the substantial projects dealing with Academic Integrity funded by the OLT this year?

    Also, at the risk of self promotion, may I recommend some resources that colleagues and I developed a few years back with funding from the ALTC?

    p.s. if the student is using a turnitin report to "fine tune" their paraphrasing - then it is plagiarism.

    1. Robert Nelson

      Associate Director Student Experience at Monash University

      In reply to Paul A Whitelaw

      Hey Paul, great note, thanks! You would be good at plagiarism detection because you are already onto me. So I must confess that I did see the OLT invitation and even tried to get a bid in. When we looked at the draft that we prepared, it seemed a teensy bit out of alignment, so we ended up not applying. I'm of course very interested in the South Australian project, which is promising, as well as your own back in ALTC days, which clearly looks at the cultural motives. It was pertinent for me…

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    2. Paul A Whitelaw

      Senior Lecturer in Hospitality Operations

      In reply to Robert Nelson

      Hi Robert,
      Yes, it is deep, but not intractable. Also, it is enduring and resistant to the silver bullet; constant vigilance is required. Tracey Bretag's project will certainly help with the HDR scholars. I suspect that Abhaya Nayak's project will be of particular interest for you as well. Our project is more concerned about the role of course leaders in embedding academic integrity philosophy and practices into "normal" teaching. Good luck with your project.

  13. Geoff Taylor


    Recently a leading journal issued an apology for poor reviewing practices which led to letting through what it said was plagiarism. The authors were Chinese and use surname first. They seem to have consequently cited two Finns who developed the methodology they used by their forenames in the reference list. They did quote extensively from the Finns in describing the methodology selected before going on to apply it to the safety of mass transit passengers.
    However it was always clear in the paper whose methodology it was. Should this work then have been characterized as plagiarism or rather unfamiliarity with some of the norms of western publishing, especially quote marks on anything reproduced verbatim?

  14. Geoff Taylor


    The university plagiarism guidelines I've seen treat plagiarism as a sin of commission not omission.

    What if a writer (or paper or book editor) unknowingly includes material from a source which it turns out later came from a secondary source, because the first source has not referenced the secondary source?

    As an aside, we will probably never know if Besso made Einstein aware of the publication of e=mc2 in a scientific journal by de Preto eighteen months before Einsteins'paper. Einstein's paper apparently didn't reference de Preto.