Rather than simply punishing students for passing off other people’s work as their own, schools need to help them become more discerning – and critical – with their use of online research.
William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Martin Luther King all have been accused of plagiarism, so what chance do young students stand in coming up with original material if these great brains of history resorted to copying off others? To be fair, very little of their material was criticised and it is all down to speculation. In schools and universities, only a small proportion, albeit growing, of students are plagiarists. Some, as it happens, plagiarise by accident.
The advent of the internet, and especially sites like Wikipedia, have made it all too easy for anyone to lift information and pass it off as one’s own. Plagiarists not only repeat such outside data, but they are likely to disseminate erroneous information. Just because it is written down somewhere, doesn’t make it true!
In schools, students who may be accused of plagiarism fall into two broad categories: those copying with intent and those misunderstanding the nature of research. The younger the student, the latter is more likely. The wealth of material online and the various portals available to students, such as social and content sharing sites, or bespoke essay writing services, provide them with a double-edged sword. Indeed, it is easy for teachers to check if entire sentences have been copied off the internet, simply by looking them up using search engines.
Teachers who know their students easily spot the unusually perfect syntax or journalistic style when marking class essays. Examiners who are less familiar with their students will still have an inkling that something isn’t right. This includes variations in tone and quality of language or irrelevant and specific references that the student clearly oversaw when copying and pasting.
Those students who may have accidentally plagiarised usually do not understand how to produce original work. Students must be taught research techniques and the differences between quoting, paraphrasing and summarising. Guiding students and pointing them in the direction of valid sources on the internet is also good practice, so that Wikipedia ceases to be the sole port of call for factual information.
Pupils must be informed of the consequences. While these may not go beyond a telling off and a rewrite of their homework at school, the reverberations become serious later. Universities punish this practice with sanctions varying in harshness but which always have an impact on the student’s final results. Such penalties can severely affect academic and professional careers. At a higher level, PhDs have been revoked on grounds of plagiarism, and a great deal of money has been lost in lawsuits and cases of copyright infringement. However, the greatest damage is caused to the plagiarist’s personal and professional reputation. Plagiarism directly implies a lack of honesty and leads to pervasive mistrust.
Rather than come down hard on young students, let us teach them good practice and honest work ethics; let us show that the original fruit of hard work is better rewarded than perfect but copied results. Let us equip them with the tools to develop research skills, by encouraging them to practise from a young age with the use of library books and accompanied internet use. Let us guide them into critical thinking so that they can discern the best sources, be they real or virtual material. If we do this, good students will emerge who are willing to work hard and are not tempted to cut corners.
Sabine Hutcheson, Education Consultant at TutorsPlusPreview