Harzing (2002) writes that one of the defining features of academic writing ‘is the care that is taken to substantiate claims and arguments, often by referring to other literature in the field’ (p127). Individuals depend on academic papers being ‘reliable source[s] of information’, so the credibility of academia relies on the academic integrity of its contributors. Academic arguments must be supported by relevant material and research, and the materials used to support arguments must be properly referenced to maintain a work’s integrity.
In my time working in online education and observing the study habits of online students from all around the world I have seen first-hand the prevalence of poor conduct in online classrooms with regard to academic integrity. A startlingly high number of students have had their studies arrested or derailed due to poor academic rigour when it comes to referencing and plagiarism. Here I consider how plagiarism and cheating can be detected, how assessment can be designed to thwart academic dishonesty and what steps can be taken to otherwise prevent plagiarism from occurring in online study environments.
Plagiarism can be detected in two ways: through manual means and through software detection. For manual detection, Harris (2004) advocates an approach he calls ‘looking for clues’. This approach involves looking for specific patterns of written work that can typically indicate that plagiarism or copy/pasting has taken place. Harris suggests that a grader be vigilant towards ‘inconsistent citation styles, lack of citations in long passages, awkward formatting, use of dated language, use of difficult vocabulary and terminology, and irregularities of diction and style’ (summarised in Jocoy and DiBiase, 2006, p8). Plagiarism can also be detected using plagiarism software like Turnitin.com. Turnitin.com is an example of educational technology that has the function of comparing submitted work with other student submissions and academic work from all around the world (what Turnitin.com call ‘the world’s largest academic database’). By checking the originality report that plagiarism detectors like Turnitin.com use we can see what sections of a submitted work should be cited and referenced correctly, and then take action for any fragments that fall short of integrity expectations.
The way assessments are designed can also help prevent academic dishonesty in an online class. Students can ideally be challenged with online assignments that encourage collaboration in the correct manner. Dr. Keith Pratt, for example, advocates designing assessment that mirrors real-life situations. In the modern, technologically advanced world students do not work in isolation from sources and assistance (Laureate, 2010). Laptops, smartphones and other mobile devices make collaboration in problem-solving a very simple solution for real-life tests. Pratt explains that he creates difficult exams and assignments and promotes conference between students while working on these. This can take away some of the reticence students might feel when referencing numerous other sources in their work, but there is still the issue of student awareness towards correct academic conduct that needs to be addressed.
The single most stubborn roadblock standing in the way of proper use of citing and referencing in academic environments is the fact that ‘many learners don’t consider copying and pasting from websites as plagiarism’ (ibid). One of the most effective ways of greatly reducing instances of plagiarism in online classrooms is education on the topic of academic integrity. Jocoy and DiBiase (2006) cite research that indicates students who ‘received no explicit plagiarism instruction plagiarized twice as often as those who participated in active instructional activities such as class discussions of definitions of plagiarism, review of Turnitin.com plagiarism reports, and exercises requiring students to identify instances of plagiarism in example essays’ (p5). Students need to be guided in the correct practices of academic writing. It can be a useful exercise to even explain to students that a similarity score of 100% in your Turnitin.com submission (indicating that nothing you have written is original work) does not necessarily mean you have plagiarised your work. If you have corrected cited and referenced your entire paper you might get a very poor grade for lack of original thought, but you will not be punished for cheating. I am a strong believer in these preparations for proper academic referencing skills being imparted on students before the beginning of their online studies during some sort of orientation programme.
By combining an awareness on how to detect plagiarism when it happens with an effort to avoid occurrences in the first place by designing assignments in a certain way and, in particular, educating students on the importance of citations, the threat of plagiarism to academic credibility can be reduced substantially.
Harris, R. (2004). Anti-plagiarism strategies for research papers. VirtualSalt. Retrieved February 13 2015 from: http://faculty.ksu.edu.sa/alshayban/Plagiarism/Anti-plagiarism.pdf
Harzing, A. (2002). Are Our Referencing Errors Undermining Our Scholarship And Credibility? The Case Of Expatriate Failure Rates. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23, 127-148.
Jocoy, C., & DiBiase, D. (2006). Plagiarism by adult learners online: A case study in detection and remediation. International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning, 7(1), 1-15.
Laureate Education (Producer). (2010). Plagiarism and cheating [Video file]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu.
Recognizing Top Turnitin Educators and Students. (n.d.). Retrieved February 13, 2015, from http://turnitin.com/.