On academic integrity, plagiarism and contract cheating

OPINION: Dr Don Houston, Senior Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT

As we re-embark on a review of the University’s Academic Integrity policy, I’ve been thinking about issues that need to be considered in the review. I’ve also been looking back over my social media channels – Facebook and Twitter – where academic integrity is mentioned on a more or less regular basis, to see what prompts for consideration they might contribute to the review.

I’ve sketched out some thoughts and opinions below.

The University’s academic integrity policy begins with the following statement:

All students and staff have an obligation to understand and respect the rules and practice of academic integrity. It is therefore expected that students and staff will adhere to high standards of academic integrity. The University will provide resources to assist students and staff to be aware of their responsibilities. It is expected that academic staff will provide appropriate guidance, support and feedback to assist students to become familiar with the normal academic conventions relevant to their discipline.

The University will provide text-matching software for use by staff and students.  Except where this policy provides for an exemption under special circumstances, all text-based student assignments will be subject to text-matching in conjunction with their submission for assessment.

The italicised broad statement of expectations of staff is expanded later in the policy. One of the 12 listed staff responsibilities is ‘ensuring that appropriate action is taken in accordance with this policy if potential breaches of academic integrity are revealed’. The other 11 focus on the educative and assessment design responsibilities of staff. But that one seems to dominate staff attention and effort – I have no evidence to support this assertion but from conversations it seems to be the case. This is perhaps unsurprising given that virtually the whole of the policy focuses on the nature of breaches of academic integrity and the processes for dealing with them.

Fortunately, the policy does differentiate types of breaches of academic integrity. It influenced a recent tweet of mine:

Not all plagiarism is equal: not all plagiarists are cheats. Poor referencing practice is not the same as contract cheating. Respond differently to them.

And recently, this ‘Advice’ section article from The Chronicle of Higher Education popped up on my Facebook timeline https://www.chronicle.com/article/Cheating-Inadvertently/229883 (I have a problem with the label ‘inadvertent cheating’ as cheating to me is by nature a deliberate act). The subtitle of the article is ‘Even faculty members disagree on when paraphrasing becomes plagiarism. How can we expect students to know?’

One point the article makes is that we can only expect students to know if we teach them, and provide opportunities to practice without penalties attached. So do we do this explicitly, and enough? In my opinion, getting students to work through the Academic Integrity for Students FLO module and do the quiz is a start but not enough.

A similar situation arises with text-matching software: do we do enough to help students understand what it does and what a similarity report percentage score means/doesn’t mean?

An indication of student understanding comes from this post on the ‘Overheard at Flinders’ Facebook page:

Submited an essay today and got 29% plagiarisem. Checked, and all that is highlited are the parts I have refrenced and the footnotes. Any ideas?

This post prompted a substantial number of responses from students (a lesser number from staff who follow the page). Some were well informed about the use and interpretation of text-matching software (ie Turnitin), while others showed quite inaccurate understandings of what it does and what similarity percentages show or mean. Some responses indicated that students have experienced different responses to perceived breaches of academic integrity:

You will be fine. It’s not until you actually have someone’s else’s work 100% identical that they care…. yes this happened to me

As I tweeted a month or two ago:

Turnitin doesn’t identify plagiarism: it matches text. Text can match for a host of reasons: the similarity % indicates that text matches – nothing more. Differentiating coincidental matches, poor academic practice or more serious breaches of AI require judgement by academics.

So to return to the point about teaching and practice around Turnitin, perhaps we need to educate students to respond to similarity reports in a more informed and less fearful manner? Perhaps our own, at times naïve, use of the tool contributes to the fear and near panic that similarity reports cause for some students.

Perhaps if we do better on educating students on academic conventions like referencing and acknowledging contributions of others to work, skills like paraphrasing, and making positive use of similarity reports as learning tools, then we could focus more attention on changing conditions to limit opportunities for the more worrisome practice of cheating.

Cheating and specifically contract cheating have been getting quite a bit of press recently, largely due to excellent work being undertaken by our colleagues Tracey Bretag and Rowena Harper at UniSA and their collaborators on an OLT-funded project.

As I tweeted recently:

excellent workshop with @TraceyBretag and @RowenaHarper79 on contract cheating and assessment design. A key message: contract cheating is a symptom not the problem. The problems are systemic & need systemic solutions.

Their work is having national and international impact. TEQSA has sponsored Tracey Bretag to produce a good practice note on the subject:

TEQSA‏ @TEQSAGov 24 Nov 2017

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TEQSA Retweeted Campus Review

Great article on contract cheating by @CampusReview and @TraceyBretag. If you haven’t read the good practice note on contract cheating, head over to our website: https://goo.gl/VHC8jP  We’ve also made a recording of the academic integrity forum available: https://youtu.be/hVupH4mfVEY

The project has produced an array of infographics and resources, and two recent publications that are well worth reading:

Tracey Bretag, Rowena Harper, Michael Burton, Cath Ellis, Philip Newton, Pearl Rozenberg, Sonia Saddiqui & Karen van Haeringen (2018): Contract cheating: a survey of Australian university students, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2018.1462788

Rowena Harper, T. Bretag, C. Ellis, P. Newton, P. Rozenberg, S. Saddiqui & K. van Haeringen (2018): Contract cheating: a survey of Australian university staff, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2018.1462789

So perhaps in reviewing our Academic Integrity policy, we need to pay more attention to highlighting staff responsibilities beyond ‘catching the cheats’; focus on educating students on conventions and practices rather than punishing (relatively minor) breaches; and look explicitly at what might be done to alleviate systemic characteristics that contribute to cheating behaviours.

I’ve had my say to start the conversation. I am interested in what you see as issues that need to be addressed in the review and related activities around academic integrity. Email me: donald.houston@flinders.edu.au. I’d be pleased to talk, perhaps over coffee.

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