Cut ‘n’ paste

I’m currently dealing with a plagiarism case where a student has copied all of two pieces of work – and, rather cunningly, I thought, used books not easily available physically or as e-books, but ones which feature whole pages on Google book search and Amazon “Look inside”. The student can’t actually cut and paste, but has retyped the passages word for word. A couple of sections are cut and pasted from online articles. Not a word of the student’s assignments is original. Like every other institution, we have a policy on coursework that requires the student to sign a declaration that work submitted has not been plagiarised. So I’m not surprised by this item in today’s Nick Cohen column in the Observer:

How to succeed the cut and paste way
Each year, ever more illiterate and innumerate undergraduates go to university and demand to be spoon-fed answers, revealed the Times Higher Education Supplement last week.

The 250 admissions tutors, who confessed to their despair at standards in secondary schools, weren’t completely without hope. They thought their remedial courses might knock them into shape. I’m not so sure. According to the Plagiarism Advisory Service – and, yes, such an outlandishly named body exists – one quarter of students admit to cutting and pasting from the net. Universities have computer programmes to detect lifted work, but have to confront students who can’t see what’s wrong with plagiarism. Many got through school exams on the strength of course work parents and teachers ‘helped’ them complete. The concept of cheating is a novel one for them.

On top of that are the pressures on the university authorities to cheat themselves. Overseas students are a lucrative source of revenue and the manner in which universities guaranteed cash flow by giving dim foreigners degrees has been an open scandal for years. Lecturers are now facing similar pressure to reward British students unjustly because of New Labour’s demand for ‘inclusive’ higher education.

I asked Susan Bassnett, pro-vice-chancellor of Warwick University, if it was possible to go from nursery to university in this country without learning anything. She replied: ‘You can certainly get a 2:1 without demonstrating the capacity for independent thought and without acquiring basic skills.’ Foreign students are now abandoning Britain for countries with serious universities with worthwhile degrees. Perhaps, Bassnett added, the loss of their money will force our authorities to face the disaster they’ve created.

What’s really depressing is that a pro-VC of one of our most prestigious universities can admit that a 2:1 can be had without, essentially, doing anything like higher level study. I can confirm, though, that the concept of cheating does seem to be a novel one for many students. I’ve had to patiently explain in words of one syllable to several students this year that no, it is not OK to simply copy something and hand it in as your own work…

CC BY-SA 4.0 Cut ‘n’ paste by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

13 Responses to “Cut ‘n’ paste”

  1. It’s a demoralising article. As a student I’ve long suspected that individual thought has not always been welcomed by some tutors, but the idea that it’s possible to get a 2.1 without breaking a sweat is a wee bit soul-destroying. Why work so hard just to finish up in the same bracket as the half-hearted students who combine study with a full time job?

  2. Why work so hard just to finish up in the same bracket as the half-hearted students who combine study with a full time job?

    I’m not convinced that all students with a full time job are axiomatically “half-hearted”.

    ‘You can certainly get a 2:1 without demonstrating the capacity for independent thought and without acquiring basic skills.’


  3. I think there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Plagiarism is such a hot topic at the moment that a lot of work is going into detecting it and also creating the conditions whereby it can’t flourish – for example by reintroducing an exam element into courses. The upshot is that the conscientious student will be better rewarded, I think.

  4. I’ve been mulling over this. Can anyone imagine the CEO of any organisation coming out and saying – “I’m sorry, our product is suspect and we really don’t have the internal quality controls to make sure that you can trust our name on the label. Of course we’ll keep taking your money for the product but some may be rubbish and it’s not our fault.”

  5. I think is happens because many students do not realise that is is okay to quote or to refer to something and then add thier thoughts or compare it to an experience. If they think it has to be something entirely of their own it leads to cheating. Many adult / young adult learners are not used to using their own resources – in the past they have copied or paraphrased teachers handouts or set books, and for that they have received good marks. At the other end of the scale I have seen people legitimately put quote after quote and list all the references but not add a word of their own. All educational institutions have surely got to help people with this. Why is referencing not mentioned or expected until people get to university? What would be so wrong or so difficult in saying even to primary school children “Say where you got it from and then say what you think of it”. A few stages on the kids could be asked to find 2 things and compare them. Too much spoon feeding re facts in the first place me thinks. Copying teacher was fine in the past so why not copy stuff off the Internet?

  6. I suppose it all boils down to whether people think that education is about the facts and the ‘right’ answer or whether it is about looking at the facts and using them. Many of the people I deal with believe (initially)that it is the first. They expect someone to tell them all the answers. They also expect to find these ‘right’ answers on the Internet. If people within education want the students to change their ways then surely they have to change the way they ‘teach’ and assess. Personally, I don’t think that exams are the only answer. In fact I think that many exams are simply a regurgitation of memorised facts.

  7. To Anglepoise. If I got a 2.1 and someone else who cheated or who didn’t put in the effort got a 2.1, my 2.1 would be worth a lot more. Not only to me but to anyone who employed me. Their 2.1 and the bit of paper would not carry them through life.

  8. I’m sure you are right, Kat re the spoonfeeding. I had someone this year ask if I was going to supply the first paragraph of an assignment. I’m told it’s commonly done at A level.
    You are also right re the panic that engulfs some students – but let’s not be too indulgent: I am seeing quite a lot of very sophisticated plagiarism. And then of course, there are the people who supply custom made essays for a fat payment…

  9. The penalty varies from place to place, but most have a system that goes something like this:
    First / naive offence – warning, zero for the work, do it again
    2nd / more serious – zero for the assignment.
    3rd / grave offence – possibly automatic fail on module or course. I do know of students who have been failed at the end of year 3 when extensive plagiarism has come to light…

  10. I’m not sure how many people know the OU policy, I do as I had a case of collusion/plagiarism a year or so ago.

    First case, zero – no resubmit. Second case (or a particularly bad example, the whole thing is C&P), can be slung off the course by the Staff Tutor. Plagiarism on an ECA may be passed to Exams and Assignments who can bar a student from ever taking another OU course. If dealt with at Regional level the student fails the course.

    As always there are checks and balances and the ST is the arbiter of what goes where and is inolved in determining the action(s) taken. They also conduct the investigation after being notified by the tutor.

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