I really enjoyed reading Bill Taylor’s letter to his students about academic integrity. I like the emphasis on a two-way relationship between teacher and learner, based on trust. I agree with the idea that the importance of academic integrity is something that should be promoted at University in preparation for life in general and contributing to a healthy, functional society. This is something I do value in my relationship with my students, and I do have expectations of them and standards for myself when it comes to academic integrity, but I do not make this explicit in the manner that Taylor chooses to. Instead, within each myelearning course shell, I provide them with the University guidelines regarding plagiarism at the beginning of each course (regardless of which year they are in), alongside online resources for how to avoid unintentional plagiarism.
Despite this, plagiarism is something I had to deal with constantly since beginning my lectureship. My overall impression is that students emerging from secondary education in Trinidad are lacking a fundamental understanding of why using unacknowledged sources is wrong – both morally and intellectually. I would suspect that this is thanks to being generally rewarded for right answers (not thought processes) during primary and secondary education. For example, I often find myself reminding students that I do not set assignments because I don’t know the answer (I usually do, or could just google it anyway!) but rather because I am trying to gauge their grasp of a concept and encourage them to engage with the topic! This sometimes surprises them. Beyond that, I think many have also never acknowledged the idea of intellectual property: that the things that they read in papers and on websites have been thought or, researched or written by other people and it is not right or fair to neglect to mention them or, worse, imply that they are your ideas or words. This ignorance and naivety means that I do tend to treat first-time cases of plagiarism as an educational experience in their own right, rather than as an offence to be punished.
Usually, this involves inviting them in for a face-to-face chat to discuss what they did wrong, and why this is a problem (see above). Here, discretion is necessary. If I am convinced that the student genuinely misunderstood what plagiarism is, then I spend time explaining in detail and checking they understand though discussion, and then I tend to give them a chance to resubmit with a late penalty attached. If it is clear that they consciously plagiarised – or even copied from another student – then they also receive the same talk, but receive zero marks for that assignment. In both instances, I find Turnitin software extremely useful, as I can show them on my computer screen exactly what they did wrong – and suggest how they could have avoided such issues (quotation marks, citations, rewording). The most common issue that arises is cosmetic paraphrasing, but I have also dealt with cases where students have admitted to straightforward answer-swapping for tutorial worksheets. The excuse here tends to be about work load – but I emphasise that plagiarism should never be an option, no matter what. I make it clear that it is always better to negotiate an extension if things get that bad. If Level Two plagiarism (see UWI Plagiarism Policy) was detected in the same students work more than once, I think I would have no choice to refer the student to official procedures, but so far this has never been necessary, and it seems that in most cases it is possible to deal with cases without taking it to this level (Bates, 2010).
I had not thought about it deeply before, but I do use Turnitin as an educational tool, as well as a time-saver for filtering out those assignments that require extra scrutiny for potential plagiarism, and then judging those who have plagiarised. I tend to concentrate on any with more than 10% similarity, but frequently find that the % is not correlated with the extent of plagiarism at all; 20% can be fine, while 11% might be serious Level II plagiarism. The downside of Turnitin is that, no matter how many times I emphasise that the % is not the important thing, I still get students panicking about their precise %, often unnecessarily, and I think this can distract from the idea of academic integrity and what the actual reason for not plagiarising is – and the tools to avoid it. It can also encourage the idea of changing a few words here and there until you hit the ‘magic’ acceptable %. Still, I am not sure there is a perfect solution to this problem and I am immensely grateful to be teaching in a world where Turnitin exists (although Talab (2004) describes some alternatives).
Reading Bill Taylor’s letter has inspired me to adapt my own course introductory letter to include a paragraph on academic expectations, trust and integrity, in the hope that this will help my students think more deeply about why plagiarism is unacceptable and deter them from seeing Turnitin submissions as a hoop to jump through. After all, academic integrity is something that we can and should help students to acquire during their University career, as it is just as important as the knowledge and skills that we impart in terms of producing the next generation of academics, not to mention members of society in general.
Bates, Tony (2010) Cheating in Online Learning. http://www.tonybates.ca/2010/08/21/cheating-in-online-learning/
Talab, R. (2004). A student online plagiarism guide: Detection and prevention resources (and copyright implications!). TechTrends, 48 (6), 15.
Taylor, B. (2004). Academic integrity: A letter to my students. http://oue.umbc.edu/files/2015/09/letterToMyStudents.pdf
This is a place where I can reflect upon both on my teaching experiences as a new lecturer, and on my learning experiences as a student on the Certificate of University Teaching and Learning course.