The bad

6 April 2004

When it comes to marking, one of the hardest parts is dealing with the problem of plagiarism.

What I try to do, is rather than deal with the intent (which is almost impossible to prove one way or the other; and, interestingly enough, is explicitly disregarded by the University’s policies), is to look at the simple mechanics of “is it clear to me where this idea has come from” and “is it clear to me whose words I reading”? That is to say, is it unambiguous to me (through the normal requirements of academic writing in this department (i.e. “AP”:http://www.apastyle.org/) who said what? This is reflected in the policy on “AP”:http://www.apastyle.org/ referencing1 that is detailed the ‘black book’. Thus for me, the issue isn’t “has someone tried to pass off another persons words or ideas as their own”, but “are the mechanics of citing other peoples ideas and words correct?” And so it is on the mechanics of referencing rather than on plagiarism itself that I usually seek to address the issue. Now no one is going to lose all their marks for failing to indicate from which page a quotation was taken. That is trivial. At worst, I’d probably make a remark in the margin. But, for me, in the previous example, it does have to be crystal clear that it is a quote in the first place. There are no shades of grey. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (aka the AP manual ? or AP bible) is unambiguous on this too.

Why referencing is important is a whole other discussion. As, an aside, and ignoring the obvious answer about marks, I wonder consideration you have given the following types of questions:

  • Why is referencing important?
  • What are the institutional reasons for requiring references?
  • What are the social imperatives for referencing?
  • How does referencing reflect ‘our’ concerns with scientific thinking?

In any case, it is important and academics (and dare I say, students2) are required by honour, and by the university’s policies, to act when the problem is identified3. Of course, for those who run afoul of such policies, it can never be a simple issue of mechanics. I doubt, when “confronting the brutal facts”:http://www.jimcollins.com/lab/brutalFacts/index.html, that my rationale means much to those affected. When faced with forgoing 10, 20, or even 30 per cent of their marks, rarely is it a matter of the student saying “Yes, I got that wrong.” How many marks doesn’t seem to matter; even for five or even three per cent most people, when in a situation about loosing their marks, will fight tooth and nail to keep them (or some portion of them).

From this side, I face two difficulties. Firstly, I always assume the students have done the right thing with regard to referencing. And so, my starting position is to trust the assignment that is turned to me. However, once that trust is broken in one place in an assignment, it is broken for the whole of the assignment. I have neither the time, nor the inclination to consider and check every single word and phrase to see if it is trustworthy. There is no realistic way for me to check an assignment. Even a system, such as “Turn It In”:http://www.turnitin.com, might pick up only 30 per cent of material that is copied. The only time can I be sure that it has found all the copied material is when Turn It In says that 100 per cent of an essay is the same other work.

Trust is important. I’ve seen almost every variation of replication of material. Whole essays taken entirely from the web or an electronic journal. A 2,000 word essay consisting of 60 other sources spliced together, not a single original word by the essays author. A badly written essay from one semester, based on a person’s individual reflection, where the ‘new’ version has just changed the names of the people and team involved. These are the extremes – but it happens, more often, on a smaller scale. One paragraph copied from a friend or a journal, half a dozen sentences stolen and scattered through out an assignment. And, so on. If trust is gone, what do I rely on?

The second issue is, what is fair for the class and everyone who has gone before? I’m not sure that there are any straight forward answers here, other than to trying and be consistent.


  1. Referencing, in this context, should be taken to mean the process of indicating the source of ideas and words (or even pictures and sounds – in fact any one else’s work) in your own work such as academic essays, a computer programs, a drawings, figures, musical compositions, musical performances, and so on.

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  2. The person who created “Turn It In”:http://www.turnitin.com did so in response to his students’ complaints about other students who were cheating. People who where spending a lot of time writing a good essay felt cheated, and considered that the quality of their degree was being eroded, when they saw class mates submitting ‘bought’ papers. (Oh, this is only a partial answer to the questions earlier on in this entry.)

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  3. This has big implications. For example, last year an essay was found to be largely identical to one submitted the year before. Subsequent research found that both students had copied from the same article. As a result both essays where given a zero. One of those students had already graduated – but getting a zero for that assignment changed his grade for the course from a C to D-, which meant that he failed the course he had completed, and thus his degree was taken back. Also, there was a case a few years ago, where a lecturer at VCU found old essays on disk and decided to check them ? As a result 120, or so, students had their degree withdrawn

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