Learning and Teaching in Action: Assessment

Student in language lab

 

Final year undergraduate student plagiarism: academic staff and student perceptions

Luke Armstrong and Rachel Delbridge

Introduction

In the last academic year (07-08), the completion of either an independent 20-credit project or 40-credit dissertation was compulsory for all final year undergraduate students in the Department of Information and Communications (DIC). This article reports, selectively, on a research project undertaken by a student studying on the BSc (Hons) Information and Communications route, Luke, who was supervised by Rachel.

Luke’s research sought to investigate perceptions of final year undergraduate student plagiarism within DIC, from the perspective of both Departmental academic staff and the final year undergraduate students themselves. We focus our report here on some results of the research: the staff and student perceptions of final year DIC students’ incidences of, and reasons for, plagiarism, and the student attitudes to plagiarism.

Methods

A survey approach was adopted in this research, with the data collection method of self completion questionnaires.

Two questionnaires were developed: one for staff and one for students. In both questionnaires, questions were asked in relation to (a) perceived engagement in ‘minor’ and ‘major’ plagiarism activities by final year DIC undergraduates, and (b) perceived reasons for undergraduate DIC final year students undertaking plagiarism. The questions drew upon the work of Dordoy (2002) and Bennett (2005), and included adaptation of MMU’s definition of plagiarism.

In addition, the student questionnaire included questions designed to elicit the respondents’ own attitudes to plagiarism and perceptions of factors that contribute to plagiarism, as well as questions to identify personal characteristics of the respondent. Again, Bennett’s (2005) work was influential here, as was that of Smith et al. (2007) and Chapman and Lupton (2004).

Following piloting of the data collection instruments, non-probability sampling methods were used in the distribution of the questionnaires; convenience sampling was adopted for the student population and snowball sampling for the staff population. Data were analysed from approximately 70% of the student population and 25% of full-time academic staff.

Results

Perceptions of incidences of plagiarism

Staff and students were asked to identify what percentage of final year DIC undergraduate students they believe engage in ‘minor’ and ‘major’ plagiarism activities.

The data analysis revealed that students believed incidences of plagiarism to be higher than staff in almost all instances. Tables 1 and 2 show the results relating to ‘minor’ and ‘major’ plagiarism activity.

Table 1: Arithmetic mean of the percentage of final year DIC undergraduate students that are believed, by students and staff, to engage in 'minor' plagiarism activities
Minor plagiarism activity DIC final year undergraduate students (n=55) DIC staff (n=5)
Unacknowledged inclusion of a small amount of published work
43%
29%
Unacknowledged summarising of a small amount of published work
55%
58%
Inclusion of a quote without quotation and in-text citation
45%
29%
Inventing references never used
34%
10%
Copying a small amount of another student's work
29%
23%
Working and sharing ideas with other students on individual work
55%
48%
Table 2: Arithmetic mean of the percentage of final year DIC undergraduate students that are believed, by students and staff, to engage in 'major' plagiarism activities
Major plagiarism activity DIC final year undergraduate students (n=55) DIC staff (n=5)
Unacknowledged inclusion of a large amount of published work
19%
13%
Unacknowledged summarising of a large amount of published work
21%
31%
Downloading a full essay from a cheat site and passing off as own
11%
8%
Buying an essay from a ghost writing service and passing off as own
9%
7%
Coping a large amount of another student's work
17%
10%
Submitting a piece written by a person known to the student
12%
6%

The estimated extent of ‘minor’ plagiarism incidences by students and staff are similar for some activities, for example, the ‘unacknowledged summarising of a small amount of published work’ is thought to be engaged in by 55% and 58% of students respectively. However, students perceive that 34% of students ‘invent references never used’, whilst staff think this is the case for only 10% of students.

Staff estimated that 31% of students were ‘summarising a large amount of published work without acknowledgement’, whereas the students’ estimate was that 21% of students were engaging in this activity. This was the one occasion where staff estimates exceeded those of students by any noticeable margin.

Perceptions of reasons for students undertaking plagiarism activities

Staff and students were asked to rank eight given reasons for DIC final year undergraduate students undertaking plagiarism. These eight reasons reflected a range of ‘suggestions’ relating to plagiarism, that: plagiarism was intentional, plagiarism was unintentional, the blame for plagiarism was on easy access to resources, the blame for plagiarism was on badly designed assessment tasks, the blame was on the student, or that the blame was on other students. Table 3 summarises the results relating to reasons for plagiarism. The most prominent reason students believed final year DIC undergraduate students engaged in plagiarism activities was ‘there is easy access to material via the Internet’. Staff also ranked this reason highly.

Table 3: Rank of reasons for DIC final year undergraduate students undertaking plagiarism activities, by students and staff
DIC final year undergraduate students (n=55) DIC staff (n=5)
Reason Rank Reason Rank
Easy access to material on the internet
1
Student wishes to get a better grade =1
Student not aware it constitutes plagiarism
2
Student believes they're not likely to be caught
=1
Student does not fully understand the rules
3
Easy access to material on the internet
2
Student wishes to get a better grade
4
Student lazy or has bad time management
3
Student believes they're not likely to be caught
5
Student does not fully understand the rules
4
Student lazy or has bad time management
6
Student not aware it constitutes plagiarism
=5
Badly designed assessment tasks
7
Pressure from other students to share work
=5
Pressure from other students to share work
8
Badly designed assessment tasks
6

Students placed unintentional plagiarism (‘student not aware it constitutes plagiarism’ and ‘student does not fully understand the rules’) higher than staff as a reason, whereas staff placed intentional plagiarism (‘student wishes to get a better grade’ and ‘student believes they’re not likely to be caught’) higher.

That the blame could be placed with a student (‘student lazy or has bad time management’), was ranked higher by staff than students.

‘Badly designed assessment tasks’ and ‘pressure for other students to share work’ received the lowest ranking from both students and staff.

Student perceptions of general student attitudes within DIC

Students were asked to indicate the strength with which they agreed or disagreed with statements relating to factors contributing towards plagiarism. These questions were phrased in the following format:

I believe that many students within DIC...

  • have never attended any formal lectures conducted by the University or lecturers on plagiarism
  • do not have the desire to work or learn
  • find that there is too much information available in electronic format, especially from web site
  • do not know how to properly acknowledge the author through citation
  • have family that has high expectations on them to obtain good grades
  • find lecturers reluctant to take action against students who plagiarise.

The statements used can be understood within the following categorisations: lack of awareness, personal attitudes, availability of Internet facilities, lack of competence, pressure, and institution-related. The sample statements given above constitute an example statement relating to each of the categorisations.

Pressure and access to the Internet were found to be key contributing factors. Results are presented in Table 4, (where means are calculated on the basis that ‘strongly disagree’ = ‘1’, ‘disagree’ = ‘2’, and so on).

If we focus on the means which indicate agreement with statements, the results suggest that students think that many final year DIC undergraduate students are affected by pressure (‘have family that has high expectations on them to obtain good grades’, ‘have limited time to finish work’ and ‘feel pressure to complete many assignments during a given time period’) and availability of Internet facilities (‘find it easy to download articles from websites’ and ‘find that there is too much information available in electronic format, especially websites’). Lack of awareness :‘do not know the legal implications of plagiarism’ and lack of competence: ‘have poor time management skills’, were also found to be contributing factors.

Students’ own attitudes to plagiarism activities

Students were also asked to indicate the strength with which they agreed / disagreed with statements relating to their own attitude to plagiarism activities. These results are presented in Table 5, (where means are calculated on the basis that ‘strongly disagree’ = ‘1’, ‘disagree’ = ‘2’, and so on). Students own attitudes showed ‘negative feelings’ towards plagiarism.

Students agreed with the ‘positive statements’ i.e. that ‘it is right to give authors credit for their work’, that ‘plagiarism is wrong’ and that ‘plagiarism undermines learning and creating your own ideas’.

Students disagreed with the ‘negative statements’ i.e. disagreed that ‘getting good grades is more important than citing materials’, and strongly disagreed that ‘there’s no harm involved with plagiarism, I don’t see what all the fuss is about’ and ‘winning is more important than honesty’.

Luke’s final project report also included analysis of student perceptions and their personal characteristics. This unearthed some further interesting results, for example, own attitudes to plagiarism (Table 5) revealed more pronounced disagreement with ‘negative statements’ by females, than by males.

Conclusions

Whilst Luke’s full report was able to contextualise the results further, we present some key conclusions below.

Final year students were found to have estimated the occurrence of ‘minor’ and ‘major’ plagiarism incidences higher than DIC staff in every instance except for the unreferenced summarising of a small or large amount of work (Table 1 and 2). This may suggest that there are more students engaging in these activities than staff believe, although, of course, the actual incidences of plagiarism were not measured. However, as Dordoy (2002) states, although there may be over-estimation, the “perceived reality that cheating is a common occurrence is itself an issue that needs to be dealt with” (p.2).

Estimations of engagement in plagiarism activity, by students and staff, indicated that, in general, ‘minor’ plagiarism was thought to be more prevalent than ‘major’ plagiarism, which we suppose provides some solace!

In relation to the perceptions of common reasons for final year undergraduate DIC students engaging in plagiarism (Table 3), the students seem to place blame on ease of Internet resources access and unintentional plagiarism over intentional plagiarism, whereas staff seem to place blame on intentional plagiarism and access to Internet resources over unintentional plagiarism.
It is interesting to note that Dordoy’s research (2002), which surveyed 155 academic staff and 140 students, found that students placed one aspect of intentional plagiarism (‘wanting to get a better grade’) as the most significant reason for plagiarism, whereas the most common response from staff was a student’s ‘laziness or bad time management’.

With regard to student opinions on student attitudes within the DIC (Table 4), pressure and the availability of the Internet were found to be contributing factors to plagiarism. Students seemed to believe that final year undergraduate students within the Department are mostly ‘aware’ and ‘competent’. This contrasts somewhat with other findings reported here of student reasons for engaging in plagiarism (Table 3). Of course, it is heartening that the students agreed with statements such as ‘plagiarism undermines learning and creating your own ideas’, and disagreed with statements such as ‘there’s no harm involved with plagiarism, I don’t see what all the fuss is about’ (Table 5).

Table 4: Arithmetic mean of final year undergraduate students' attitudes to factors contributing towards student plagiarism within the DIC (n=55)
I believe that many students within DIC...
1
Strongly
 disagree 
2
 Disagree 
3
 Agree 
4
 Strongly
Agree 
feel pressure to complete many assignments during a given time period  
3.2
 
have poor time management skills  
3.2
 
have family that has high expectations on them to obtain good grades  
3.1
 
have limited time to finish their work  
3.1
 
find that there is too much information available in electronic format, especially from web sites  
3.1
 
do not know the legal implications of plagiarism  
3
 
find it easy to download articles from websites  
3
 
want to avoid hard work  
2.9
 
are lazy and are used to delaying work  
2.8
 
have never attended any formal lectures conducted by the University or lecturers on plagiarism  
2.8
 
do not know how to properly acknowledge the author through citation  
2.8
 
do not understand what constitutes plagiarism  
2.7
 
have poor research skills  
2.7
 
cannot do well in preparing their assignments  
2.7
 
do not understand their subjects  
2.7
 
have too many subjects in one particular term  
2.7
 
feel it is easier to plagiarise, as the types of academic assessment given by lecturers are similar  
2.6
 
think that the lecturer could not identify if they plagiarise  
2.6
 
think that cutting and pasting from the internet is much easier and faster than doing an assignment themselves  
2.6
 
find it difficult to construct sentences in English  
2.5
 
find that the types of assessment allow them to plagiarise  
2.5
 
are not interested in their topics  
2.5
 
do not have the confidence to prepare a good assignment  
2.4
 
are not aware of institutional rules and regulations  
2.4
 
do not see the need for knowledge in the future  
2.4
 
think that action taken by the University to punish students who are caught plagiarising is time consuming  
2.4
 
feel that it is not important to acknowledge the original writer  
2.3
 
do not have the desire to work or learn  
2.3
 
are not afraid of being caught by the lecturer  
2.3
 
do not see plagiarism as a problem  
2.3
 
find lecturers reluctant to take action against students who plagiarise  
2.3
 
have difficulty understanding articles in English  
2.3
 
think that their lecturer does not know the consequences of plagiarism for the student  
2.1
 
Table 5: Arithmetic mean of final year undergraduate students' own attitudes to plagiarism activity
 
1
 Strongly
disagree 
2
 Disagree 
3
 Agree 
4
 Strongly
agree 
It is right to give authors credit for their work
3.5
Plagiarism is wrong
3.2
Plagiarism undermines learning and creating your own ideas
3.0
Getting good grades is more important than citing materials
2.2
Winning is more important than honesty
1.8
There's no harm involved with plagiarism, I don't see what all the fuss is about
1.7

 

References

BENNETT, R., 2005. Factors associated with student plagiarism in a post-1992 university. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 30 (2), pp.137-162.

CHAPMAN, K.J. and LUPTON, R.A., 2004. Academic dishonesty in a global educational market: a comparison of Hong Kong and American university business students. International Journal of Educational Management, 18 (7), pp.425-435.

DORDOY, A., 2002. Cheating and plagiarism: student and staff perceptions at Northumbria. Proceedings of the Northumbria conference – Educating for the future [online] [cited 17 October 2008]

SMITH, M., GHAZALI, N., and MINHAD, S.F.N., 2007. Attitudes towards plagiarism among undergraduate accounting students: Malaysian evidence. Asian Review of Accounting, 15 (2), pp.122-146.

about the author

Luke Armstrong
Graduate, Department of Information and Communications

Rachel Delbridge
Senior Lecturer, Department of Information and Communications

e-mail: r.delbridge@mmu.ac.uk
telephone: 0161 247 6143

Download this article as a .pdf file

Autumn 2008
ISSN 1477-1241