Carrot or the stick? Technology and university plagiarism

Using technology to tackle plagiarism is important, but universities need to understand why students do it in the first place. Student image from

Trying to control and prevent plagiarism is a problem for all universities, and nearly all universities these days use some kind of technology to combat it.

But in a recent article on The Conversation, Monash University’s Robert Nelson argued that text-matching software (often incorrectly called plagiarism detection software) cannot help address the moral problem of cheating at universities. Nelson’s assumptions need to be addressed.

Help or punish?

While technology alone is not the sole solution to the issue of plagiarism, prior research indicates that technological tools can help.

Nelson has understood the software only as a policing mechanism to catch cheating students. But text-matching software has changed greatly since commercial products were globally marketed in the early 2000s. Originally, many institutions used text-matching software in the way Nelson has described – to “detect and punish” students.

But more and more the software is used by students themselves who want to make sure they have citations right before turning in their essays. Programs like Turnitin, for example, can help students pick-up citation errors that cost them marks.

The technology is sophisticated and is improving all the time – there is now significant research being done to address the issue of translated plagiarism, also of concern to Nelson.

The honesty model

Of course, technology is just the tool. It is how universities deal with plagiarism and cheating that is most important and in that regard, times are changing. Universities are recognising that plagiarism detection can be used as a learning opportunity as well as a punishment.

It’s true that many universities focus on a dishonesty model. This model uses the language of criminal law to define plagiarism and how institutions deal with it. Although this kind of policy focus can lead to an increase in the number of cases of plagiarism detected, it doesn’t help students learn how to avoid plagiarising.

But for a number of years now, many universities have focused on trying to understand how and why students plagiarise. For example, national initiatives in the United Kingdom have explored this and a number of research papers presented at the recent International Plagiarism Conference in the UK illustrate moves by universities around the world towards consistent and fair approaches to plagiarism.

These approaches use technology text-matching as a basis for educating students about plagiarism, not punishing them. Similarly, many universities in the United States follow the International Center for Academic Integrity model and flip the issue from one of dishonesty to one promoting honesty in academic writing.

Instilling integrity

In Australia, a number of universities also follow a model of academic honesty rather than dishonesty in policies and seek to use technology to promote learning rather than use it to punish.

I agree with Nelson’s idea that academic integrity is a skill that should be explicitly taught. Universities have a responsibility to actively pursue this, as most claim they produce “ethical” or “honest” graduates. Where Nelson and I differ, is that I see no issue with using technology to support that aim.

Misunderstanding and cheating

I would also distinguish between plagiarism and the essay-mill form of cheating that Nelson describes. In latter case, the student deliberately pays for a piece of work to be written by another (ghost-writing) source. The student does not have the slightest intention of giving the assignment a go themselves and sets out to deceive the marker and obtain an unfair advantage over other students. This is clearly cheating.

But there are also many cases of plagiarism where students have done the work themselves but forgotten to put quotation marks around direct quotes, missed referencing or cited sloppily. Most of these students do not intend to deceive the marker or obtain any unfair advantage over other students. Many just haven’t “got” how to write a really good essay or report yet.

Imitating to learn

Developing the skill of writing well in a particular discipline takes time and practice.

In addition, many academics acknowledge that in some disciplines, students are encouraged to copy and replicate. In fashion design, students copy garments to learn how they are created in order to push the boundaries in new design.

Some students, research indicates, engage in a practice called “patch-writing”. They imitate writing from journal articles and books in an attempt to sound like the writers in a discipline.

Copying and imitation can be part of the learning process for academic writing but using Nelson’s argument this automatically becomes a form of plagiarism or cheating.

Wouldn’t it be more honest to acknowledge that where imitation is encouraged, students need to be taught how to move from “novice imitator” to “innovator”?

Technology isn’t the sole solution to plagiarism. It does, however, offer text-matching capability that provides a basis to help students understand how to attribute the work of others. But more importantly, universities need to understand plagiarism better and to embed notions of academic honesty in university courses.