Learning and Teaching in Action: Assessment

Student in language lab

 

Teaching students about plagiarism

Maureen Dawson and Joyce Overfield

Introduction

A grant obtained from the Learning and Teaching Support Network for Bioscience (now the HEA subject centre for Bioscience) enabled us to undertake a project to determine our studentsí perceptions of plagiarism. This article gives a brief overview of the findings of this project, and how we have used the findings to raise awareness of plagiarism and its consequences amongst students taking programmes in Biological Sciences and Biomedical Sciences at MMU. A full report of this project (Dawson and Overfield, 2006) is available on-line at the HEA Bioscience website.

The aims of the original project were to:

  • Determine our students’ perceptions of plagiarism
  • Produce guidelines for our students based on the findings.

Methodology

We devised a questionnaire which was divided into two sections: Section A consisted of three multiple choice questions, to allow the students to think about the definitions of plagiarism and collusion and why they should be avoided. Section B consisted of six scenarios which were based on our own experiences of plagiarism while teaching at MMU. We gave the questionnaire to Level 4 (Stage 1) students (n=105) during induction week, to Level 3 (Foundation) students (n=44) during an early teaching session, and to Level 5 (Stage 2)and 6 (Stage 3) volunteers (n=28). Academic staff were also invited to complete the questionnaire, but only 13 decided to do so and the results are not presented here. For Level 3 and 4 students the questionnaire was delivered during a one hour session. The purpose of the questionnaire was explained to them, and the results, and subsequent guidelines, were posted on a common WebCT area.

Findings

The findings, and subsequent guidelines written, are shown below for each question.

Section A:

In each case you should circle the answer(s) which you feel are correct. Circle as many answers as you think appropriate

Question 1. Plagiarism is:

  1. Using someone else’s words as if they were your own.
  2. Using someone else’s ideas as if they were your own.
  3. Using someone else’s results as if they were your own.
  4. Sharing work with someone else and pooling ideas.
  5. Getting your ideas from a text book.

The results are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Student views on what plagiarism is

While students were clear that passing off someone’s words as their own constituted plagiarism, they were less clear about ideas and results. Thus, in response, we wrote in our guidelines:

"Plagiarism has been defined in many ways, however the definition that we find most useful is that of Carroll (2002), which states that
‘Plagiarism is defined as passing off someone else’s work, whether intentionally or unintentionally, as your own for your own benefits’ (Carroll, 2002).

This means that plagiarism includes:

  • using someone else’s words and/or ideas as if they were your own,
  • using someone else’s results as if they were your own,
  • copying chunks from textbooks without stating where the material came from and without any contribution of your own."

 

Question 2: Plagiarism is morally wrong because:

a) You may get caught and lose marks.
b) It is dishonest.
c) Assignments that are plagiarised fail to demonstrate your knowledge of the work.
d) You don’t learn anything by copying someone else’s work
e) It steals other people’s ideas.

The results are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Student views on why plagiarism is wrong

Approximately 20% of students felt that plagiarism was wrong because they might get caught! In addition a sizeable number of each group failed to accept that plagiarism was dishonest and, as in Question 1, the fact that plagiarism is stealing someone’s ideas was not always recognised as being wrong.

In our guidelines we wrote:

‘Plagiarism is morally wrong because it is dishonest and steals other people’s ideas. Apart from that if you plagiarise your assignments you will not be demonstrating to your tutors your own knowledge and you will not learn anything at all by copying someone else’s work.

 

Question 3: You may be accused of collusion if you:
a) Submit an assignment produced as a joint effort, under your name only.
b) Copy a completed assignment that your friend has emailed to you.
c) Work in a group as instructed to produce a poster as a joint effort.
d) Lend a completed assignment to a friend, who then copies any part of it.
e) Pass off someone else’s work as your own, for your own benefit.

The results are shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Student views on collusion

These results show that the students were uncertain as to what constitutes collusion and whether their actions would expose them to accusations of collusion.

In our guidelines we wrote:

Collusion occurs when students work together on an assignment but each student submits the assignment as if it were all their own work. For example if two of you work together on a laboratory exercise and have one set of results, you must then write and submit the report individually. If students submit very similar reports and it is clear that they have worked together they will be found guilty of collusion and penalised accordingly.
Working collaboratively, when instructed to do so, is not collusion. An example might be when you are instructed to work in a group to produce a poster. You should never lend or email an assignment to a fellow student because you will be accused of collusion and /or plagiarism if they copy any part of it, even though you have done all the work
.’

Section B:

Scenario 1: This relates to copying of chunks of texts from books. Student ‘A’ had copied wholesale without acknowledgement; ‘B’ had copied but acknowledged source (no quotes to indicate how much), ‘C’ had acknowledged and re-worded; used quotes when needed. Students were asked to circle ‘yes’ if the individual students concerned were guilty of plagiarism.

Students were reassured that they did not have to understand the text for the purposes of the questionnaire!

The following paragraph is taken from ‘Introduction to Transfusion Science’ by (Overfield, Dawson and Hamer, 1999).

"The genes responsible for particular blood group antigens may be carried on the autosomal chromosomes or on the sex chromosomes. When they are carried on the sex chromosomes they are linked to the X-chromosome. As the genes may also be dominant, co-dominant or recessive, they can be inherited in a variety of possible ways. Most blood groups fall into the category of autosomal dominant or codominant, though X-linked dominant inheritance is occasionally seen, for example in the blood group system Xga. The mating of heterozygous individuals may result in a homozygous recessive trait being inherited. For example, H+ parents, each of whom has the genotype Hh, may produce an offspring who has the genotype hh, and this is the genetic basis of the rare Bombay phenotype. Family pedigrees are sometimes used to trace the inheritance of a particular gene."

Students were asked to write an essay on the inheritance of blood groups and the following paragraphs were written by students A, B and C:

Student A:
‘All of us have a blood group that is passed down through families. Most blood groups fall into the category of autosomal dominant or codominant, though X-linked dominant inheritance is occasionally seen, for example in the blood group system Xga. The mating of heterozygous individuals may result in a homozygous recessive trait being inherited. For example, H+ parents, each of whom has the genotype Hh, may produce an offspring who has the genotype hh, and this is the genetic basis of the rare Bombay phenotype.’

Student B:
‘Blood groups are determined by the presence of genes which code for antigens on red cells. Most blood groups fall into the category of autosomal dominant or codominant, though X-linked dominant inheritance is occasionally seen, for example in the blood group system Xga. The mating of heterozygous individuals may result in a homozygous recessive trait being inherited. For example, H+ parents, each of whom has the genotype Hh, may produce an offspring who has the genotype hh, and this is the genetic basis of the rare Bombay phenotype.’ (Overfield, Dawson and Hamer, 1999).

Student C:
‘Red blood cells have membrane cell surface antigens which are characteristic of a particular blood group. Overfield, Dawson and Hamer (1999) have stated that ‘Most blood groups fall into the category of autosomal dominant or codominant, though X-linked dominant inheritance is occasionally seen, for example in the blood group system Xga. The mating of heterozygous individuals may result in a homozygous recessive trait being inherited. For example, H+ parents, each of whom has the genotype Hh, may produce an offspring who has the genotype hh, and this is the genetic basis of the rare Bombay phenotype.’

The results from this scenario are shown in Table 1 for Levels 3 and 4 students.

Table 1: Results from Scenario 1
Scenario
Response
Level 3
Foundation; n44f)
Level 4
(Stage 1: n=105)
1
Student A
was guilty of plagiarism
77.3
86.7
Student B
was guilty of plagiarism
29.5
36.2
Student C
was guilty of plagiarism
15.9
12.4

 

In our guidelines we wrote:

‘Student A is guilty of plagiarism because they have directly copied a number of statements from the book without stating the source of the information. Even if they did state the source of the information they would still be guilty of plagiarism because the text is copied word for word and is not within quotation marks.

Student B is also guilty of plagiarism even though they have cited the source. There is no indication of the extent of copying from the book and no attempt to discuss the information in their own words.

The example from Student C is not plagiarism because they have used quotation marks to show how much has been taken from the book. Some students submit assignments which consist of a series of quotations where the source has been cited. Technically this is not plagiarism but is poor practice and will not get good marks.’

 

Scenario 2: This scenario is about copying sentences/phrases from textbooks. Students D and E had both copied segments- E word-for-word, D less so. Student F had re-worded but no acknowledgements were seen. Students were asked to circle ‘yes’ if the individual students concerned were guilty of plagiarism.

‘The following is a short paragraph from a text book:

‘T lymphocytes (both CD4+ and CD8+) respond to the foreign histocompatibility antigens on the surface of the donated cells. The immune system produces cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) directed against the foreign histocompatibility antigens on the grafted cells’ (Overfield, Dawson and Hamer, 1999).
Students D, E and F have all read the text when producing their essays on bone marrow transplantation. Their individual essays contain the following phrases:

Student D:
‘The surface of the donated cells have foreign histocompatibility antigens to which T lymphocytes (both CD4+ and CD8+) respond.’

Student E:
‘T lymphocytes (both CD4+ and CD8+) respond to the foreign histocompatibility antigens on the surface of the donated cells.’

Student F:
‘Histocompatibility antigens on the surface of the graft cells stimulate CD4+ and CD8+ lymphocytes. These cells recognise and respond to the foreign MHC antigens.’

The results are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Results from Scenario 2
Scenario
Response
Level 3
Foundation; n44f)
Level 4
(Stage 1: n=105)
2
Student D
was guilty of plagiarism
25
38.1
Student E
was guilty of plagiarism
59.1
93.3
Student F
was guilty of plagiarism
13.6
4.8

 

In our guidelines we wrote:

  • Student D has attempted to paraphrase the information from the textbook, however they should still cite the source of the information as it is sufficiently similar to the book.
  • Student E is guilty of plagiarism because they have copied word for word. To avoid charges of plagiarism both students should cite the source of the information.
  • Student F has attempted to explain the information in their own words and is not guilty of plagiarism. They would be expected to quote any sources they have used in a bibliography.

 

Scenario 3: this is about students downloading material from the internet.

‘Students were asked to submit an essay entitled ‘autoimmune disease’. All the essays were subjected to electronic detection of plagiarism, based on detection of key phrases, with the following results:

Student G:
This essay was found to be downloaded entirely from a single website which was not referenced. The student had listed 12 other references including books, journals and Internet sources.

Student H:
This essay was found to have been downloaded entirely from 3 Internet sources all of which were referenced.

Student I:
This essay listed 12 references from books, journals and Internet sources. Electronic detection of plagiarism revealed that the Internet sources listed had been used correctly.

Students were asked to circle ‘yes’ if the individual students concerned were guilty of plagiarism. The results for scenario 3 are shown in Table 3.

Table 3: Results from Scenario 3
Scenario
Response
Level 3
Foundation; n44f)
Level 4
(Stage 1: n=105)
3
Student G
was guilty of plagiarism
79.5
95.2
Student H
was guilty of plagiarism
31.8
54.3
Student I
was guilty of plagiarism
6.8
3.8

In our guidelines we wrote:

‘Student G is definitely guilty of plagiarism as the entire essay has been written by someone else. In addition, the listing of 12 other references which were not used is a clear attempt to deceive.

Student H is also guilty of plagiarism since none of the essay was their own work even though three internet sources were given. It is not acceptable to submit an essay which has been entirely or even partly copied in this way.

Student I is not guilty of plagiarism because they have referenced their sources correctly. To avoid a charge of plagiarism (and because it is good academic practice) you should reference web sources in the same way as you would a textbook.’

 

Scenario 4: this concerns copying work from friends.

‘The deadline for handing in a practical is Monday 30th September. You have completed your report by the 28th. Your friend, who partnered you in the practical class, calls round on Sunday evening- he has just remembered the deadline and is panicking because he has lost the results. You agree to lend him your practical report. Without your knowing, your friend copies the whole report and hands it in the following day. The tutor notices that the two pieces of work are identical, he speaks to both of you about it. Your friend denies copying your work.

Questions: please circle any statements which you think are correct:

a) Your friend is guilty of plagiarism.
b) You are guilty of aiding plagiarism.
c) Copying the work was reasonable, since you had both worked together in class.
d) Your friend will be subjected to a disciplinary procedure.
e) You will be subjected to a disciplinary procedure.

The results for Scenario 4 are shown in Table 4

Table 4: Results from Scenario 4
Scenario Response Foundation (n=44) Level 1 (n=105)
4
Your friend is guilty of plagiarism
77.3
96.2
You are guilty of aiding plagiarism
25
40
Copying the work was reasonable (you had both worked together in class)
9.1
1.9
Your friend will be subject to a disciplinary procedure
61.4
91.4
You will be subject to a disciplinary procedure
34.1
65.7

 

It is interesting to note that many students do not recognise that they could be subjected to a disciplinary procedure in this case, since the tutor would not know which student had copied.

In our guidelines we wrote:

‘Both of you will be accused of plagiarism and/or collusion. Your tutor will not know whether one of you has copied from the other (plagiarism) or whether you have worked together and produced identical reports. For this reason you will both be penalised and may both be subjected to a disciplinary procedure. In actual fact, your friend is guilty of plagiarism whilst you are guilty of aiding plagiarism. You should never allow a fellow student to copy your work even if you have carried out a laboratory exercise together.’

 

Scenario 5: this concerns good/bad practice when taking figures from websites.

‘Student J has produced an essay on nuclear pores. He has read the appropriate literature and written the essay, giving references to the literature where necessary. He has obtained a picture, with written title and legend, of nuclear pores from an internet website and has downloaded it entirely into his essay. In which of the following cases would this student be guilty of plagiarism?

a) He has cited the web reference in the reference list at the end of the essay.
b) He has cited the web reference on the figure itself and in the reference list.
c) He has cited the web reference in both places and has re-written the legend.
d) He has made no reference to where he obtained the figure.

The results for Scenario 5 are shown in Table 5.

Table 5: Results from Scenario 5
Scenario Response; 'Guilty of plagiarism if ...' Foundation (n=44) Level 1 (n=105)
5
He cited the web reference at the end of the essay
15.9
22.9
Cited the web reference on the figure itself and at the end of the essay
15.9
7.6
Cited the web reference in both places and has re-written the legend
9.1
7.6
He made no reference to where he obtained the figure
72.7
93.3

Students recognise that the figure would be plagiarised if no acknowledgement was given, but they were not aware of good practice in citing the reference on the figure itself.

In our guidelines we wrote:

‘If you download a figure from an internet website, or even photocopy a figure from a book, you must reference the source of the figure to avoid being accused of plagiarism. The best practice is to cite the reference on the figure itself and in the reference list, including the date it was accessed. You should always write a legend which is appropriate to the figure as used in your essay.’

 

Scenario 6: This is about collusion

‘A group of students have been given an essay title ‘The use of spectrophotometry in the biosciences’. They have been told to research their essay, and that they will write the essay under examination conditions during a lecture period. Two students, K and L, have decided to work together to research different aspects of the subject. They get together to share what they have found. They then sit down and write an essay together which they memorise. The essays which they write in class are almost identical (with around 80% of the sentences and phrases being word-for-word). At what stage do you think the students are guilty of collusion?

a) When they decide to work together?
b) When they share the results of their research?
c) When they write the essay together?
d) When they memorise the essay?
e) When they write the essay in class?

The results are shown in Table 6.

Table 6: Results from Scenario 6
Scenario Response; 'Guilty of collusion when they ...' Level 3 (n=44) Level 4 (n=105)
6
Decide to work together
11.4
8.6
Share the results of their research
15.9
24.8
Write the essay together
45.5
75.2
Memorise the essay
40.9
41.9
Write the essay in class
22.7
31.4

Again, it is clear that students are uncertain about when and how collusion occurs.

In our guidelines we wrote:

‘It is not wrong for students to work together, and you may well be encouraged to do so. However, students are colluding when they write the essay together and guilty of collusion when they write the essay in class because each student is then submitting the work as their own. The students will be penalised because tutors will not know who has done the work.’

 

Our final piece of advice to our students was as follows:

Students often do worry about committing plagiarism unintentionally. In the questionnaire which you completed, we included the most common types of plagiarism and collusion that we come across. Because the penalties for plagiarism may be severe, you need to be aware of which activities constitute plagiarism and which are examples of poor practice. A good student will avoid both. If you are in any doubt about whether you are plagiarising in an assignment, you should check with the tutor who set that assignment.

 

Summary

There are advantages in using scenarios to teach students about plagiarism. Since we based the scenarios on our past experience it is likely that students will identify with the cases concerned. The scenarios can be adapted if activities change- for example, one could use a scenario in which a student had bought an essay from a website. The scenarios can also be adapted to different groups such as postgraduate taught and postgraduate research students and to help overseas students become familiar with UK practice.
We have continued to use the questionnaire in induction to raise awareness of good/bad practice and some tutors have an on-line version, giving instant feedback, on the VLE area for their unit.

We thank:

LTSN Bioscience for support; Trudie Roberts (Leeds University) and Carol Philips (University of Northampton) for their helpful comments on the questionnaire and the guidelines.

Reference

Carroll, J (2002) A handbook for deterring plagiarism in higher education (Oxford Brookes University).

Dawson, M.M. and Overfield, J.A (2006) Plagiarism: Do students know what it is? Bioscience Education e-journal 8 ISSN 1479-7860

about the author

photo of Maureen Dawson

Maureen Dawson
Centre for Learning and Teaching

e-mail: m.m.dawson@mmu.ac.uk
telephone: 0161 247 1205

photo of Joyce Overfield

Joyce Overfield
Senior Learning and Teaching Fellow, Faculty of Science and Engineering

e-mail: j.overfield@mmu.ac.uk
telephone: 0161 247 1200

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Autumn 2008
ISSN 1477-1241