Academic Integrity in the New Millennium

 

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The hardest thing about writing is writing (Nora Ephron)

 

Student plagiarism is a big issue (and apparently an equally big industry) in high school and post-secondary education. It’s never been easier to craft a bricolage of web-based material for a written assignment, and it’s never been easier to detect evidence of academic dishonesty. Tools like Turnitin, iThenticate and online search engines allow for immediate identification of copied source material. Given the high risk and high stakes involved, why do students do it?

The way I see it, a number of interacting factors have created a “perfect storm” kind of context in which student plagiarism can flourish:

1. Stewart Brand, digital social network pioneer, famously said that “information wants to be free”. We’ve seen how intellectual ownership of music and film has been defended vigorously in the courts, yet for every torrent site that gets shut down, a new one pops up. Digital content on the network behaves like water: block one pipeline and it effortlessly reroutes through others. The digital generation has grown up accustomed to immediate access to a gushing flood of “free” content.

2. This leads to the next contributing factor: social media platforms are as much about the flow of content as original content creation. Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, and others are about free flow of media and ideas. There is a culture of “content curation”, and the best curators are rewarded by likes, notes, reblogs, retweets, repins etc.

3. Academic databases have traditionally been way less user-friendly than search engines. This is starting to change, but the reality is that if you’re pressed for time, don’t understand Boolean logic, and want easily-digested and accessible information, a quick web search might win out. There have been periodic (and growing) exhortations for researchers to make the products of research more accessible, however we have far to go in realizing this knowledge transfer ideal.

4. I am not sure that students really appreciate the consequences of academic misconduct. It’s a bit like impaired driving: seems worth the risk at the time, but when you find yourself in court, without a license, and facing massive fines, insurance costs and social stigma, the cost of booking a stretch limo is a bargain. Same goes for plagiarism. Universities take it pretty seriously, and that meeting with the Dean is a lot like going before a judge.

5. Finally, writing is hard. Encoding our ideas in abstract alphabetical symbols just doesn’t come naturally for most of us. In fact, sometimes coming up with original ideas to encode doesn’t come too naturally either.

Academic Integrity is the foundation of knowledge generation and production. But somehow there’s a disconnect with digital norms and popular culture/practice. The solution? Still murky, but I think that an ongoing dialogue with students acknowledging and exploring the terrain between these separate realities is a good place to start.

 

4 comments
  1. Thoughtful piece. I’ve been trying to pinpoint the disconnect myself with my students.

  2. Thanks, and glad to hear I am not the only one struggling with this!

  3. spider said:

    Not sure that all universities take plagiarism as seriously as one would want. I had a student, a number of years ago, submit a final essay worth a very significant share of grade, which was entirely cobbled together from websites. The associate dean suggested as a final solution that the student re-submit the essay before the beginning of next term. That meant that the student would not fail the (final year) course, which meant that the student could graduate with the rest of the class in three weeks’ time. He suggested that, after all, the student had included a bibliography. I understand from colleagues that this is not a unique situation, nor is it particular to the specific institution.

    I believe the pressure on colleges and universities to receive positive comments from students in such venues as the Maclean’s poll may be a significant factor in these situations.

    • Thanks for sharing this example. How discouraging is it to be rigorous in grading, and have an egregious example treated lightly?! My own experience is that such cases have been taken seriously – but I guess that as in other “jurisdictions”, academic justice is not always served. Your student probably felt like she/he got lucky, but I suspect that in the longer term this experience has reinforced behaviour that may someday result in a more devastating outcome than failing a course. We’ve seen a couple of recent cases (amply covered by the media) of plagiarism by professionals…not pretty.

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