5 Key Takeaways from the 5th International Plagiarism Conference

Jonathan Bailey and Dr. Mike Reddy

Jonathan Bailey and Dr. Mike Reddy

I’m back in the U.S. following the 5th International Plagiarism Conference (and some additional time off). I’m going to be spending the next few days working to get caught up on email and other correspondence (I think GMail stopped counting the number in my inbox) so I won’t be up to my full routine for a few more days at least.

However, I did want to go over some of the bigger takeaways that I got from the conference and how I intend to apply them moving forward.

I don’t now how many of these takeaways were intentional, some of them came more from talking with others at the event between sessions and during breaks than from any of the talks. However, they are definitely the things I’ve found myself thinking about in the days since it ended.

With that in mind, here are my five takeaways, in no particular order (other than they sound good to me in this order).

1. The Role of Technology is Changing in Academic Plagiarism

When I was at the 3rd International Plagiarism Conference four years ago, many still viewed Turnitin as a tool to catch plagiarists and nothing more. Representatives from Turnitin, including Dr. John Barrie himself, struggled to counter that perception.

This time around, it was very different. All of the talk, literally from the welcome speech, was about “holistic” solutions and integrating originality detection software deeper into the feedback process, making it part of the grading and refining process, not just a tool to catch cheaters.

The idea, by in large, is to teach students about how to avoid being accused of plagiarism and how to create good research. This idea was popular and received warm welcome both in various sessions and, particularly in Dr. Tara Brabazon’s keynote at the beginning of the second day.

Attitudes seem to have shifted, at least among this group, and there’s a lot more emphasis on treating the root of the problem that causes plagiarism rather than merely dealing with the symptoms.

2. The Technology is getting Better

Turnitin LogoHowever, just because the role of the tech is changing doesn’t mean that it’s not still being improved. Earlier this year iParadigms, the makers of Turnitin, introduced translated plagiarism detection and one of the workshops at the conference focused on a group of researchers from Hungary that may have developed an even better approach to solving the problem (something I will be testing soon).

It’s clear from the talks and sessions that the tech behind text matching and “plagiarism detection” is improving constantly, including speed, accuracy and ease of use, even if many of the advancements have been subtle.

That being said, there’s still clearly a great deal of room for improvement, in particular on the international front. The one workshop that discussed the accuracy of various plagiarism detection systems found that, in the use case of a Swedish university, even the best system missed about one half of its matches.

In short, the quest to improve originality checking is progressing but is far from complete.

3. Collusion is the Elephant in the Room

If you want to throw a grenade into a room of people talking about academic plagiarism, shout the world “Collusion” and be prepared to run away.

Collusion was repeatedly called the “Elephant in the Room” at the conference and with good reason. Where traditional plagiarism has a perpetrator and a victim, collusion gets much more complex. Not only are students encouraged to work together and help each other, making the boundary between legitimate assistance and collusion difficult to nail down, almost requiring it to be dealt with on an assignment by assignment basis.

But even with the grayer gray areas of collusion there are still bigger problems. You have to determine if the two students worked together, making them both guilty, or if one simply copied from the other. While it’s nice to have both students involved live and in front of you, that doesn’t always make things easier.

Worse still, as the one workshop on collusion pointed out, students are less clear about the rules surrounding collusion as one case study pointed out, a girl who was accused and penalized for collusion didn’t learn how to be a better student, but instead decided she would never work with or help another student again to be safe, even in group projects.

Collusion is the elephant in the room at these conferences and a problem that is not going away.

4. More Consistent Penalties Still Needed

One of the other great overarching concerns at the conference was the inequality in penalties from case to case, school to school and country to country. It’s clear that two students can commit largely the same offense but receive wildly different punishments depending on a million factors unrelated to the actual deed.

There was a lot of good progress made at the conference including a workshop on a plagiarism tariff (tariff in the “schedule of fees” sense of the word) that standardizes punishments. In a test of it looking at past cases, they generally found that schools metered our punishments similarly to what the tariff would and that the differences were because the punishments that were issued were not in the tariff.

Still, there is a lot of concern about how different students are treated but any talk about setting up an international standard is usually beaten down pretty quickly saying that there is first a need to focus on consistency within schools and within regions.

5. No One Wanted to Be a Plagiarism Expert

Finally, as I walked around and talked to people, one of my favorite questions to ask was simply: “How did you get into dealing with plagiarism?”

Everyone had a story, none of them good. Without fail, every single person was either forced into it by their employer or, most commonly, they were driven into it by a negative experience. Either they had noticed plagiarism issues in their classroom, (like me) had their works plagiarized or simply felt that academia was not doing enough to address the issue.

Pretty much no one wanted to be the plagiarism person and many were actively looking for a way out of it. While everyone was happy to be there, both in Newcastle and among colleagues, there was a general feeling that this was an ugly business and not what anyone wanted to be doing.

Teachers wanted to teach their subjects, programmers wanted to program other things and administrators wanted to focus on different areas of education.

In short, for no one, not even me, was plagiarism a first choice of a career. But it was a necessary one and one that we were all very driven to deal with in the best way possible.

Personal Aside

Sorry for Nothing ImageWhile I was in the UK, I was given a few days to knock around and see some of the sights. Needless to say, this was a wonderful time filled with lots of trips to castles, cathedrals and more than my fair share of British food. However, there were a few things I did and spotted while I was out there that may be relevant to PT readers.

First, many of you will remember my write up about the Band Sorry for Nothing and their licensing strategy that put their song “Swallow Your Soul” in front of thousands of video gamers. Well, my trip timed out with a concert Sorry for Nothing performed in nearby Ashington so I hopped on a bus to see them and got to hang out with them for a while afterward.

To the left a quick photo Crystal snapped of me hanging out with them, wearing the shirt they were nice enough to give me.

UK Dennis the MenaceSecond, some of you might also recall the article I wrote detailing the strange case of Dennis the Menace and how two characters with the same name were launched, one in the U.S. and one in the UK, on the exact same day. It was a bizarre case that showed sometimes what one sees as plagiarism can be just an amazing coincidence.

Well, I searched high and low in the UK for anything related to the UK version of the character and didn’t see anything, that is, until I wandered into an indoor shopping fair in Durham. There, hanging from one of the stalls, was a stuffed animal of the character, pictured right.

So, while I was over there, I managed to find both Sorry for Nothing and Dennis the Menace. Granted, the first was much more important and much more awesome, but the second was welcome surprise too.

Bottom Line

All in all, there was so much learned and gleaned from this conference and this trip that I literally have post ideas for the next month.

I’ll be going into more detail on plagiarism tariffs, translated plagiarism detection, collusion and many of the topics that were focused on in Newcastle. But, also expect a little bit about castles other things learned while I was just hanging out.

In short, there’s a lot more to come here and it’s probably a good thing that it’s only once every two years. It might take me that long to cover all of the ground I picked up.

8 Responses to 5 Key Takeaways from the 5th International Plagiarism Conference

  1. “…a girl who was accused and penalized for collusion didn’t learn how to be a better student, but instead decided she would never work with or help another student again to be safe, even in group projects.”

    I don’t blame her. And I think it’s probably unfair to say she “didn’t learn how to be a better student.” She did. She learned to be less trusting, which is unfortunate. She didn’t learn how to make her “colleagues” better, but is that her job? To me, that’s the instructor’s job, unless that’s the focus of the class. Group projects are usually a losing proposition for the smarter kids in the class. It shouldn’t be that way, but in my experience (both as a student and as a mother of two) it is.

  2. Spa Queen says:

    Not only do I agree 100% with Holly, above, (I am also a student and have two kids) but institutions have all this pressure on them to be “wired” or “digital” so they are more accessible and inclusive. The college I attend uses the same boilerplate in every class syllabus whether physical or digital and it covers plagiarism and collusion clearly. Emphasis on online work makes cheating/collusion easy. Enforcement seems to be non-existant. I know of two collusion incidences and tried to report one. Not only were the administration surprised and unprepared that someone would come forward, nobody ever followed up with me.
    Now I just MMOB and hope I graduate before the college’s sterling reputation as a “digital provider” is exposed by the performance of cheating dumb-asses in the real world.

    • Thank you, Spa Queen! I’m surprised to read that you think enforcement is non-existent. In my experience, it’s almost the opposite – overzealous. (I think Jonathan can vouch for me that I don’t say that lightly – I’m an author and quite sensitive to plagiarism and copyright issues, and have NO sympathy for willful violators or repeat offenders of any age, but I think, in an academic setting, it’s more important to teach and to correct through means other than ruining a young person’s professional life before it starts. A charge of “academic dishonesty” is a huge black mark that’s hard to overcome, I think. The only thing that makes me righteously angry (just ask my kids) is dishonesty and hypocrisy. I’m not perfect, and I’ve been known to p*ss myself off, on occasion. :) But seriously, when it comes to learners, I think it’s a complicated topic that the best legal minds struggle to keep up with, so maybe there should be a basic, required core course on the subject, both in high school and in college?

      • Actually, in my experience, you’re both right.

        In many places, plagiarism enforcement is completely over the top. Zero tolerance policies on plagiarism are actually counter-productive. They create better cheaters, not better students and they ruin a lot of promising academic careers while they’re on the launchpad.

        That strictness and severity has prompted many schools to sweep the matter under the rug. They don’t want to enforce plagiarism because it’s a hassle and a crime that many teachers see as having an unbalanced penalty. Easier to ignore the plagiarism than to deal with the hassle and risk a promising student’s future over what may be a trifle.

        However, others look at the lack of enforcement and, guess what, resort to extreme enforcement as a counter. It’s a vicious cycle.

        So yes, there’s both extreme enforcement and lack of enforcement, the two are feeding each other in a spiral of plagiarism insanity.

  3. Adam Senour says:

    I came very close to the “collusion elephant” myself in high school during a history exam. I was minding my own business, writing my answers, paying absolutely no attention to what was going on around me. In the meantime, five other students were copying off of me and/or studying my answers as I wrote them.

    I found out about it two days later thanks to my history teacher. “Adam, did you know people were cheating during the exam?”
    “No.”
    “Did you know they were copying off of you?”
    “Ummmmm…no…when were they doing that?”
    “They did it the whole time and I tried to get your attention, but you were so wrapped up in what you were doing you completely tuned me out. I stood over your head and called your name and you kept going.”
    “I didn’t hear you.”
    “I know. If you were to have reacted in any way to acknowledge my presence, you probably would have gotten suspended for cheating.”
    “But I didn’t do anything wrong.”
    “I know now…I’ve never seen anyone concentrate that hard before.”

    In other words, I was saved from a suspension on the grounds of collusion by nothing more than my own tunnel vision. No wonder kids are worried about it.

    Holly mentioned imbalances in group projects, something that I had similar issues with. It took me two years before I figured out that the only way that group work would be distributed fairly was if each member of the group took an active interest in the project (which basically left me 3-4 people out of an average class size of 30 that I could possibly work with).

    By the way, Jonathan, are you bringing the voting thing back that you had with LiveFyre? I’d like to vote up Holly’s comments. Just a suggestion, though.

    • Oh, my goodness. Thank you, Adam! I had to come searching for replies; for some reason, I’m not getting notices (even when I subscribe) on most blogs, INCLUDING MY OWN. I think this discussion is an important one.

      I’m surprised to see replies saying that enforcement is “lax,” though – seems to me it’s almost overly restrictive, in some cases. Rather than accuse a good kid of academic dishonesty because an automated tool said so, I think a little more investigation would be warranted. And if you blog, you know there are now tools that can produce a halfway reasonable facsimile of an essay that will pass most copyright checkers and look “unique.” It may not be GOOD, but it would probably earn a B or a C. We can’t afford to rely on tools and turn our BRAINS off.

      The other part of the issue is teamwork – if you can’t trust your teammates, how can you be a “team player”? And getting labeled “not a team player” because you can’t trust your teammates yet don’t want to make a big fuss over that, well – it happens in the workplace, too, doesn’t it? We need to stop encouraging mediocrity and discouraging individual ability, talent, and achievement. But at the same time, we need to figure out how to make that a PART of teamwork – where each member of the team has individual responsibility and accountability and can’t just leave it to the others because he trusts that THEY don’t want to fail.

  4. Tony Leisner says:

    Actually I did want to become a plagiarism expert. After all if you do a job nobody wants it is pretty secure. Starting in 2004, when I first discovered blatant plagiarism in an online class I have been intrigued. Yes it took a few years of serving on multiple committees but by late 2006 the university adopted a formal process and array of sanctions. Turnitin was optional but last year became embedded in the courses. My focus also changed along the way and as the university subject matter expert for academic integrity I now focus on corrective measures instead of punitive. I lead a course on plagiarism avoidance and after running 7000+ papers in Turnitin have a solid understanding of those root causes. Proudly I can say not a single case of confirmed intentional plagiarism has ever been overturned on appeal. Still, I wish I could say all faculties are as diligent as they should be because most plagiarism is a teaching moment.

    • You actually sound a bit like me. I didn’t seek it out, which is closer to what I meant when I said that no one wants it, but had an incident that pushed you into it and are now passionate about it.

      If you get a chance, drop me a line sometime, would love to chat more about what you learned and maybe consider doing an article on you for PT. You sound like someone the world should know more about.

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