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Dishonest academics may make students think plagiarism is acceptable

If academics are willing to steal others’ ideas and concepts, what’s stopping their students from doing the same? Shutterstock

Universities are constantly implementing new measures to stop student plagiarism. Students learn how to correctly cite sources and receive copies of the institution’s academic integrity code. They are helped with their academic writing skills, particularly if the language of instruction is not the same as their first language.

Lectures about the dangers of plagiarism and the resultant punishments often form part of academic courses. Universities also pay high fees to obtain the licence for software programmes that detect similarity in student work against electronic databases of millions of published articles, student assignments, company documents and the like.

These efforts seem to be making little difference, although perhaps the picture would be worse in their absence. Could something else that contributes to student plagiarism but isn’t immediately obvious be at play here?

The answer may lie with academics themselves - and, in some cases, with their own propensity for plagiarism.

Academics cheat, too

Studies have shown that the incidence of plagiarism is higher in classes where students perceive their lecturers to be lenient about the practice. This is also the case in classes where there is little or no consequence to students for plagiarising and a broader institutional slackness in upholding academic values. Plagiarism also thrives in environments where academics themselves cheat.

In a 2012 article, a colleague and I surveyed more than 900 academics at one public university in South Africa. We wanted to find out why academics don’t report student academic dishonesty.

The answers suggested that some academics felt personal psychological discomfort because of the unpleasantness involved in taking action against cheaters. Others baulked at the time and effort required to report dishonesty and follow due processes. They weighed this against the time required to work on their own research, which is a crucial determinant for promotion.

Some complained that there wasn’t clarity within the institution about what process to follow when plagiarism is detected. These are valid arguments, but they hardly uphold the integrity of the academy.

Of concern, and a possible reason for academics not reporting the dishonesty of students, is that they themselves are complicit in this cheating. We interrogated 371 articles, published in 19 South African management journals. These were submitted through Turnitin, a software programme used to detect plagiarism.

The prestigious US-based Academy of Management regards plagiarism of 5% or more as significant. Just over 31% of the articles in our sample contained plagiarised material that we defined as low (between 1 and 9%). Almost 50% of the articles contained high and excessive plagiarism of 15% or more. Some 21% alone fell squarely into the “excessive” category.

If academics themselves are plagiarising, it seems likely they’ll ignore students doing the same. But why would academics risk their careers by cheating?

Plagiarism: the risks and costs

The answer may lie in the unintended consequences of a government subsidy system. In South Africa, a large source of university income accrues from the subsidy received from the Department of Higher Education and Training for academic publications in what it calls accredited journals. In 2011, for example, the government allocated R2.2 billion to universities for their research outputs.

For each article that appears in one of these journals the department remits around R120 000 to the university at which the academic author is employed. This means academics are pressurised to publish prolifically and increase the subsidy pot.

Rewards to the individual academic are usually substantial, too. These range from income to support research and conference attendance (and travel), social accolades and accelerated promotional opportunities. The edict, “publish or perish”, so often mentioned in jest, holds true in academia today.

The problem is compounded when the subsidy to universities is considered in conjunction with plagiarism committed by academics. We calculated that, in one year, the Department paid almost R7 million (around US$ 546 000) to universities for the plagiarised articles we highlighted.

Seeking solutions

To address integrity in academia, it’s paramount to focus on the integrity of individual academics. They are role models for students. In addition, questions must be asked about a government subsidy system that may, unwittingly, promote cheating through institutional and personal rewards.

If the practice of granting subsidies in this way is to continue, it’s essential that the quality of research output is also considered - not just the quantity. This involves vigilance by both university authorities and journal editors.

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