The pointlessness of plagiarism detection

Today I was invited to sit on an e-cheating panel at the Web Based Education 2007 conference in Chamonix. Unfortunately I can’t make it, but it prompted me to consider the whole plagiarism issue. This was something I had to wrestle with a good deal when I chaired T171 You, your computer and the Net back in 1999. We had 12,000 students, so trying to find a plagiarism proof assessment method was a priority. This was back in the early days of e-learning and there were lots of people waiting to see it fail. Rather like distance education in its early days, e-learning suffered from a legitimacy deficit, so it had to work extra hard to prove its credentials.

It was all a bit Lewis and Clark at the time so we took a joing approach of designing assessment that was less plagiarisable and also putting in place human detection systems (the plagiarism detection tools were just starting then). The latter was surprisingly effective – usually the writing style changes dramatically (I would just avoid saying ‘improves’) and putting a suspect phrase in to Google was usually sufficient to uncover the source.

The plagiarism detection and provision services have since entered in to the kind of arms race we see with viruses and anti-virus software (indeed one could see plagiarism as an assessment virus). It isn’t really a field I have kept up with to a great extent, particularly as I now chair a postgrad course where the numbers are much lower, the assessment more varied and the likelihood of cheating much lower.

My feeling though is that plagiarism is a symptom of old-fashioned assessment techniques, and to put effort in to plagiarism detection is to miss the point. What a plagiarism susceptible system reveals is an unhealthy emphasis on content and an old-fashioned worldview. If you assume that all content is freely available (not necessarily true, but let’s go with it as a starting point), then if you ask students to create content then of course they’re going to lift bits from various sources, whether intentionally or unintentionally. There is an argument that the assessment method is going contrary to the connectedness of the modern world here, although acknowledging others is always good practice. But my point is that if we took this as a base assumption we would devise different assessment methods. There is nothing about the conventional exam or essay that is an absolute measure of academic quality – in fact you can view these as administrative conveniences based on the face to face, physical constraints of education. Finding ways of perpetuating them by ‘catching’ plagiarism to me just demonstrates a lack of imagination.

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