University challenged, Part VI – Why students shouldn’t commit plagiarism

I mentioned in a previous posts on my University blog that the UK’s Universities are in the grip of a Plagiarism Epidemic). Statistics suggest nearly 17,000 attempts to cheat have been recorded by UK universities in a single year. Most worrying is the emergence of so called Essay Mills (online stores that sell generic courseworks) as well as so called “contract Cheating” (tailor written essay’s and courseworks that should in theory be very hard to spot).

However, I’m now going to explain to any student reading this (I know Google will spider the phrase “download thesis” or “buy essays” and some will end up here) why they are fooling themselves if they think using these services solves they’re problems.

(1) You’ll get caught eventually! – As I pointed out in my previous post, lecturers are getting quite coy at spotting plagiarism. We’re using increasingly sophisticated methods to detect it (notably “similarity Detection” software shared via a database with other universities worldwide) and while you might get away with it once or twice, sooner or later you’ll get tripped up.

Often thought, I find the easiest way of detecting plagiarism is to have some idea of student ability and writing style. Sometimes students must think were thick as a plank with the stuff they’ll submit (I remember one case where two students copied off someone, but the guy they’d chosen hadn’t a clue, I wrote in the margins a note suggesting that next time they were planning on cheating, find someone smarter to copy off! In another he submitted a word file which had a watermark with the ID of another student on it!).

If a student who was barely able to draw a straight line suddenly turns around and submits a piece of engineering drawing that would baffle Dyson, we’ll obviously that’s going to set off alarm bells and I’m going to dig a little further. Equally if I’m reading a text and the student’s dictation is terrible, only for him then to leap into perfect Oxford English, again, that’s suspicious.

While neither proves plagiarism, as a cop will tell you, figuring out who-dunnit is the hard part of detective work, finding the evidence to prove the case, is the easy part. If you downloaded something off the internet, a few google searches means, chances are, I can too. All sorts of online tools are also now available to help lecturers.

Furthermore we lecturers have a fool proof method of proving plagiarism – a Viva. This means we call you in, give you a pencil and paper and ask you to reproduce the work, or demonstrate that you know how to do it. Obviously if you can’t do it, we’ve got you bang to rights. Currently university rules restrict when and where we can implement a Viva but some lecturers are arguing we should slip a clause into every coursework giving us the right to Viva all coursework, even first year stuff.

Sooner or later I suspect this will become the norm and if you’ve gotten used to just downloading you’re courseworks you’ll either get caught or find yourself out of your depth with the sudden acceleration in work load.

And on the point of getting caught, there’s the snitch factor. This isn’t kindergarden and thus the rules of the playground no longer apply. Its quite probable that another student will rat you out, as after all its hardly fair on them to put in all the work and let someone else get by without doing any work. Some universities are promoting an honour system among students as an affront against plagiarism (which means students who engage in it had best keep that too themselves).

(2) the penalties are getting severe! – And the penalties for getting caught are getting quite harsh. Generally you’re at the very least going to fail one or more modules. Academic suspension is another punishment and having to repeat an entire year yet another. Serious or repeated acts of plagiarism will get you thrown out altogether. Obviously if that happens all the time you’ve invested in university will be for nothing. And getting accepted by another institution will be difficult.

(3) You won’t learn anything – The point of us issuing courseworks isn’t just to assess students but to promote the whole learning experience. Courseworks are also often tailored around the sort of projects you’ll get in the real world of work. Obviously if you cheat, then you’ll learn nothing, will struggle in the final exam (most likely fail it) and if you manage to get a job, you’ll be unable to do it as you’ve not got the experience.

(4) You’re marks will suffer – Even if you get away with plagiarism chances are you’ll be getting average marks or a scrappy pass. This applies particularly too these online essay mills. On the website they will have you believe that the individuals writing for you will be retired professors and other experts. However, in reality, 9 times out of 10 its another overworked poor student (possibly a world away in China or India) doing a few extra course works to pay the bills. Inevitably however he will prioritize his coursework over yours. Indeed in likelihood he’ll slap something together at the last minute. Jonathan Bailey discusses as much in a recent post on his site. Dan Ariely of Duke University reveals a host of howlers that have crossed his desk.

A couple of these “made to order courseworks” which I’ve caught in the last few years stuck out like a sore thumb. They were substandard (at best a narrow pass) and clearly written by someone from a different university (again by trying to fool a lecturer you’re trying to fool someone who knows the topic back to front). As lecturer’s you should remember, that we’ve a pretty good idea of what the end result of courseworks should look like. And the key to getting good grades is that we are looking for is evidence that you’ve attended lectures, read all the texts on you’re reading list and generally learnt something. If I spend an hour talking about Carbon fibre’s in a lecture months before and you submit a coursework which specifies Titanium, assuming I don’t tweak straight away that its plagiarism, I’ll probably award a lower mark, as I’ll see no evidence that you’ve studied the course material.

And of course you won’t have a leg to stand on in terms of challenging this mark. After all, the last thing you want is to give me the excuse for an impromptu viva, as the first question out of my mouth will be “why did you specify Titanium”. If I get lots of “um’s” and “ah’s” then the next question will be “what’s the Young’s modulus of Titanium” (if you’d actually written the coursework that would be on the tip of your tongue). Next I’d start pulling specific passages out of the coursework and saying words of doom “explain to me, in you’re own words, what this means” Pretty soon, I’m reaching for the phone to report another case.

Many of these essay mills will claim “guaranteed B’s or A’s”. I seriously doubt that. Even if you get lucky and we don’t tweak that its plagiarism, you’ll be lucky to scrap a pass and maybe the odd C. Indeed in my experience, on a number of occasions where students have been confronted as to the fact their work was plagiarism, I’ve heard reports of them admitting to have bought it. Largely I suspect because they were so incensed at the fact that they’d paid hundreds of pounds for something that, even if we’d not smelt a rat, would still have failed (nevermind the A they were promised).

I came across a blog a while ago, where a number of students were complaining bitterly about how they had submitted plagiarized work from essay mills, only for it to get bare C’s or D’s or fails. They were talking about asking for a refund….fat chance! That’s equivalent to someone who bought a dodgy knocked off watch from some back alley spiv going back to him for a refund when he realises the stolen Rolex is actually a fake.

(5) You won’t get a reference – I think students forget what the bottom line is. The point of going to university is indeed to earn a degree, but its not a simple case of taking you’re degree into an interview and waving it at the panel and expecting to be immediately given a job. Even to get an interview you’ll need to be short-listed and that will generally require you to have an academic reference (that is one of us the lecturing staff who’ll vouch for you).

As a junior member of staff I don’t get asked for references very often, but when I do I’ll only grant them to people I know (i.e. people who have turned up for class and applied themselves) as otherwise I don’t know you (other than having seen you’re name on a class list with lots of “absent” marks next to it). In essence you’re a stranger to me, and if a random stranger off the street asked me for a reference, I’d say no.

And indeed if you’re the sort of student whose been living fast and loose plagiarising courseworks any reference I would give isn’t the sort you’d be showing to an employer:

“Despite three year’s of being on my technical drawing course I never really knew Joey. However I got to know him well during his appearance at the academic practice committee during that plagiarism case, where I must admit he argued his case quite forcefully and we only failed him in one module as a result”

(6) You won’t get past an interview – It is also worth remembering that employers aren’t stupid. They are well aware of the problem of plagiarism and that some uni’s, even those with good reputations, are now churning out the odd bad apple with questionable skills. Thus they have developed their own techniques for weeding out the strays. Obviously not having an academic reference and low marks will automatically set off alarm bells and the chances of you being short listed for interview are slim.

One method for detecting those who cruised through uni without learning anything, is to give applicants a technical interview before the main interview. This will consist of a panel of experts in a particular field (generally the field you hope to be working in) asking you a long series of quick fire and probing technical questions (think “what is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow” sort of stuff which goes on for 30-45 minutes). I’ve been through one of these myself and as I was caught unawares by it (long train journey and a headache to boot). I don’t think I did very well, and I never committed plagiarism in uni.

Obviously if I can screw up any student whose plagiarised his way to a degree hasn’t got a chance. In all probability they’ll flunk it, the panel will mumble some excuses about being in touch (they won’t!), escort you out of the room and start howling with laughter as soon as you’re down the hall.

A degree not worth the paper its printed on

So even if a student by some miracle skips through university by plagiarism, chances are he’ll find that the degree he’s essentially got to the trouble of buying at great expense, won’t be worth the paper its printed on. His grades will be poor, he’ll have no academic reference, won’t be able to get an interview let alone a job. And would find that job too difficult to hold down if he gets one (again one of the point of courseworks is to get used to the pressure of work on assignments and multi-tasking with project deadlines before you hit the real world of work).

In essence the student who cheats will have wasted several years of his time, a pile of cash and gained very little in the process. As Richard Nordquist points out in his article Three Good Reasons Not to Buy an Online Essay don’t fool yourself. Yes a degree is a lot of hard work, but its all the more satisfying when its over, knowing you’ve earned it. And the point of that hard work is to build up a portfolio of experience that can be used as the foundation of your future career. If a degree was merely some product that you could purchase we’d be selling them in vending machines out front!

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