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Why the UK is Winning the War on Academic Plagiarism

Plagiarism Advice LogoLast week Turnitin, a popular service used by schools and colleges to help detect plagiarism and other content duplication, announced that, in the UK, it has seen a sixty percent drop in the amount of plagiarism it’s detecting.

According to the announcement, the percentage of essays with more than 75% of duplicated (and likely plagiarized) content fell from 7.7% in 2005 to 3.1% in 2012. For works with more than 50% duplicated (and likely plagiarized), the number fell from 10.5% in 2005 to 6.6.% in 2012.

This is, without a doubt, great news for the UK. The Turnitin announcement is the result of a great deal of hard work and smart decisions in the country including:

  1. Plagiarism Education: In 2002, the country’s IT body JISC set up a national plagiarism education and advisory service, PlagairismAdvice, to teach on plagiarism with a standard voice across the country.
  2. Use of Plagiarism Detection Tools: PlagiarismAdvice also, initially, made Turnitin available to all UK schools, resulting in a 50-fold increase in usage.

The efforts have been impressive and, after more than a decade of hard work, the results are starting to speak for themselves.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s time to relax in the fight against plagiarism, if anything, it’s a sign that the efforts against it need to be redoubled.

Caveats and Continuing Concerns

Turnitin LogoAs great as the news is, there are a lot of caveats and limitations that have to be considered before celebrating too much.

First, the figures are local to the UK and it seems that the country is the exception to the rule. Second, it’s specifically limited to students in the UK, not to researchers, authors and others that might be involved in plagiarism cases.

Outside of the UK, the news seems to be much more grim. In other fields, most notably research, evidence shows that the number of instances of plagiarism is still growing. For example, one study found that the number of retractions retractions is up about ten fold over the past 20 years and over a quarter are caused by plagiarism and duplication.

While we don’t have data for the United States or elsewhere right now, anecodotal evidence seems to suggest that the number of academic plagiarism cases is either steady or rising, regardless of what technology is used to detect it.

In short, this is one small front in a very large battle where amazing progress has been made.

Still, even in the UK, the battle hasn’t been won.

Though 6.6% of essays with 50% or more of copied content is definitely an improvement, it’s still more than 1 out of 20 turned in, showing there is still work to be done.

So, while the news is great and there will always be some plagiarism, it’s clear that there’s still a lot of room for continued improvement.

The Question of Detection

The elephant in the room when looking at these statistics is the question of whether the drop in plagiarism detected was caused by a drop in the effectiveness of the detection.

Though this is difficult to tell because, by its very nature, undetected content is tough to track, that seems unlikely. Similar drops have not been seen elsewhere (that I’m aware of) and, given Turnitin’s broad international use, any problem with detection would likely be felt in more countries than just one.

The other fear is that UK plagiarists may just be getting better at avoiding detection systems like Turnitin and are simply finding other ways to skirt enforcement.

While this is almost certainly true to some degree, plagiarism techniques evolve just like plagiarism detection techniques, it most likely doesn’t make up the entirety of the change or even a large percentage.

Bearing in mind that the numbers are based on the total essays submitted, it’s unlikely that even 6.6% of all essays are knowingly and deliberately plagiarizing. Much of it, most likely, stems from students who are simply using outside content poorly rather than cheating.

Generally, the best way to reduce the instances of inappropriate copying is not to threaten cheaters, but to work on educating students and reducing the number of people who misuse content unknowingly or with limited understanding.

That, for the most part, seems to be what the UK is doing best.

Bottom Line

In short, the UK is a sign of the types of results that can be expected if a country, industry or group make a commitment to both detect and educate about plagiarism. Academic publishing, for example, could likely see similar results with a broad, near-universal effort on this front.

However, without such a push, the problem is only likely to continue growing.

Because, while the UK shows the potential of a good plagiarism policy, it also shows the danger of not having one. If you look at it from the other direction, in 2005, before widespread anti-plagiarism efforts were fully underway, there were more than two times the number of very serious plagiarism cases detected.

This means that, with a robust and effective plagiarism policy, one that combines education with technology and enforcement, one may be able to reduce the amount of plagiarism you see by over half.

To be clear, that process takes time, nearly a decade for the UK. The hardest part is often trudging forward with what seems like minimal progress initially. However, for those that stick through it, like the UK, the results are very impressive and speak for themselves.

So while the UK isn’t a sign that the war against plagiarism is ending or slacking, it’s a sign that victory is possible with a good strategy and, if an entire country can show that kind of progress, there’s no reason why an institution, an industry or another nation can’t do the same.

Disclosure: I am a paid conslutant for iThenticate, a company that is owned by iParadigms, which also own Turnitin.