Plagiarism: Playing Fair in the Academic 'Game'

Plagiarism: Playing Fair in the Academic 'Game'
By James Mullan
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When students decide to pursue their education at tertiary level, either at undergraduate or postgraduate level, they are actually joining millions of others worldwide in what can be deemed as ‘The Academic Game”.

Just like there are rules and regulations in particular sports or games, academic reading and writing are also governed by their own regulations and procedures.  However, just as players in any sports can be innovative and creative in displaying their skills and talent, students should also be given opportunities to develop as creative and original writers within the parameters of academic writing.

Why is it that many students then ‘fall’ into the trap of plagiarism in trying to be innovative and creative writers? The main problem lies with entry requirements.

High GPA and language proficiency scores may show that the student is academically strong, but in no way do they reflect a student’s ability and skills in academic reading and writing. An ELTS (International English Language Test) score is a ‘proxy’ or representation of students’ abilities but we have to realize that it’s a limited proxy. It shows language proficiency but a student could still be semi-literate or illiterate in academic literacy skills.

What are universities in the region generally doing to help students develop academic literacy skills to cope with academic rigour? All universities give students some sort of handbook or guidelines. Much of the language dealing with plagiarism in most handbooks tends to be negative and focus on punitive measures. Yes, handbooks are necessary for documentation and accreditation purposes but they are not enough to prevent plagiarism and promote academic honesty.

What also needs to be admitted is that students rarely read university handbooks...

Most universities offer some sort of mandatory or optional foundations or pre-university programme. Depending on individual students’ entry qualifications, the programme may be compulsory or some components of the programme may be mandatory.

Other institutions offer workshops or classes through a learning support unit which are usually run in tandem with academic modules. In many institutions, students are required to take some sort of diagnostic test or audit in addition to their language proficiency entry scores to ascertain if students need to attend extra classes. In more progressive institutions that are modelled on western examples, study skills may actually be embedded within academic modules so that students can acquire content and skills simultaneously. In addition to services, many institutions now also have set up writing centres that are designed to provide individual support to students.

Explicit teaching of academic literacy skills coupled with provision of individual support, regulated use of plagiarism detection tools, innovative assessments and sustained feedback are some of the strategies to help students become academically competent and honest writers.

Some plagiarism detection tools like Turnitin can be used in class as learning and teaching tools. Class activities can include students ‘playing’ with Turnitin to see how originality reports are generated. By having more formative assessments, lecturers can also quickly detect lack of skills among students and take necessary action early on so that students don’t have to wait until the end of semester or year to find out that they are failing. Sustained and consisted feedback from lecturers and support units is also essential so that students are always aware of their academic progress.

There is a vast range of resources available now. Many prestigious universities worldwide have comprehensive websites dedicated to academic support that can be accessed by all. Turnitin and UK also conduct regular webinars and conferences for professionals working in the field of academic support. Help is also available to institutions in setting up a proper framework of policies and procedures in instilling academic honesty.

Whatever institutions do, they have to realize that students have to cultivate a distaste for plagiarism and this can only be done through explicit instruction supported by a range of resources that will promote a culture of academic integrity and ‘socialise’ students into their respective academic contexts.

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Radhika Iyer-O’Sullivan is an independent consultant, teacher, trainer & mentor with extensive experience working in tertiary education in the UAE.  She heads Intrublend Consultancy,

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