You are studying French in your first year at university. What with one thing and another, you haven’t got around to writing the essay on the novelist Balzac that is due tomorrow. In a moment of weakness, or maybe panic, you type ‘essays on Balzac’ into your search engine. Guess what? The top result is ‘Balzac Essays and Papers | 123 Help Me’. Click in and you’ll see dozens, even hundreds of essays on every aspect of Balzac’s work. At a ‘Best value’ price of £9.99 how could you resist?
It is safe to say that the moment a student reaches for their credit card on this or any similar site, we as teachers have failed them. So how can we keep our students on the straight and narrow path of lectures, seminars, the academic library and study sessions with peers? And what is it that makes them stray? In short, as a teacher at a recent Clarity webinar on academic study skills in Indonesia asked, ‘Actually, why do students plagiarise?’ Let’s look at some reasons.
1. Failure to understand plagiarism
The Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence suggests that students may have
‘a different understanding of what constitutes academic dishonesty that is not compatible with the instructor’s understanding and policy.’ Clearly, the first step to avoiding plagiarism is to understand exactly what it is. This can be complex: concepts of academic honesty vary not just between cultures, but between different departments on the same campus. LaNette W. Thompson and colleagues at Baylor University, USA found that:
It may be assumed that students will collaborate in the math department, for example, but collaboration in other departments such as the humanities is considered academically dishonest (Gallant, 2008). International students must therefore understand each discipline’s practices since acceptable learning practices may differ from department to department (Day, 2008; Hu & Lei, 2012).
A first-year induction course therefore needs to be explicit not just in teaching what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it; it also needs to make students aware of what is acceptable within the discipline they are studying.
2. Accidental plagiarism
Accidental plagiarism is all too common, and that’s not just because the concept of academic honesty is complex. The rules for citations and referencing can be complicated and fiddly, especially if students have started a new course of study and have had to adjust to a new system. Learners can also be careless with their source materials: it’s easy to make notes and forget where they came from, or even to cut and paste a couple of sentences and not realise later that you didn’t write them yourself. This is why helping students to develop their note taking skills is so important.
3. Apathy and fear
Sometimes students plagiarise because they have no interest in the course or the topic and just want to get the assignment out of the way. Or they might feel under intense pressure to succeed, perhaps from their parents, or because they need to get a particular grade to stay on the course. There is not much we can do about that and this falls outside the remit of any study skills course. The only solution for this is ensuring that students are aware that counselling is available to them.
4. Time management and planning
A study of postgraduate students at Mzuzu University in Malawi found that 62% of ‘students strongly agreed that they plagiarise because of laziness and poor time management.’ This is the all-too-common scenario sketched out at the beginning of this post. University students have less day-to-day support from teachers than they did at school. That means they have to plan, prioritise and manage their own schedules.
We therefore need to ensure that students are aware of measures they can take to keep their workload under control: scheduling skills; revision strategies; focus and self-discipline; developing reading and listening skills to make research more efficient.
It should be obvious by now that the primary causes of plagiarism are not laziness or dishonesty as is so often assumed. The University of North Texas suggests that: ‘Students must be persuaded of the value of citation — which is far from self-evident — and instructed over time in how to do it.’ Helping students to be proud of their work and the way they complete it is important, and it means that the issue of plagiarism, which tends to be treated from a punitive point of view, even as a disciplinary matter, can be approached from a more positive perspective. And this must be in addition to the comprehensive input of academic study skills that is necessary to enable academic honesty in the first place.