5 Ways COVID-19 is Changing Academic Plagiarism

The COVID-19 pandemic and the events that have taken place over the past year have impacted society at every level. While the effects of the pandemic on society, the economy, political structure and so forth will be studied for decades to come, it has also had a slew of impacts on the academic world.

For students, this has been a time of upheaval. Most were abruptly taken out of classrooms in the spring of last year and, though policies differ this fall, many are still not on a “normal” in-person schedule. This is true at all levels, from elementary school all the way to post-graduate.

This disruption has touched every aspect of education. Teachers are forced to re-learn how to teach, students are forced to re-learn how to learn and administrators suddenly find themselves heading a very different kind of school.

We’ve talked broadly about how these changes have impacted academic integrity. Those changes are legion as schools wrestle with how to enforce academic integrity standards on students that may not be there physically.

However, even plagiarism is changing. Though plagiarism and collusion have long been acts that take place at home and away from the physical classroom, the recent pandemic has changed both the hows and whys of it as well as the response to it.

To that end, here’s five ways that COVID-19 has changed academic plagiarism.

1: Student Support Issues

When looking at warning signs that a student might turn to plagiarism, one of the best indicators is whether the student is struggling in the class. Simply put, students that are confident in their work and feel adequately supported by their school are less likely to commit plagiarism.

However, many students are ripped away from much of their support structure. Unable to access instructors physically, students also can’t seek help at school libraries, tutors or other services schools routinely provide. However, what IS available are essay mills and other contract cheating services online, all of whom are ready to exploit vulnerable students.

Well-supported students are much less likely to plagiarize but students are not receiving the level of support they are used to. This says nothing about the other emotional and physical stressors brought on by the pandemic.

2: Instructor Support Issues

Students aren’t the only ones facing issues with support. According to a recent survey, teachers are working an average of three hours more per day now than they were back in May.

One of the best tools for preventing plagiarism is creating an education system where schools are able to support teachers and teachers are able to support students. While this support structure was dubious at many schools before the pandemic, it’s broken down completely now.

Instructors are overextended, stuck trying to relearn how to teach, dealing with their own pandemic stressors and trying to hold their classrooms together as well as possible. There’s simply no way for instructors to give students all of the support they need, no matter how hard they try, and this is going to compound the first problem greatly.

3: Less of a Focus on Plagiarism

Naturally, as teachers and administrators are facing longer work hours some things are going to have to give. When compared with ensuring that students are able to attend class and that they are receiving instruction, anti-plagiarism activities take something of a backseat.

Some of this is because instructors are likely to give less time-intensive assignments such as short answer and multiple-choice tests. Some of this is because they just don’t have the time to do the investigation and some of it is because it’s simply not a high priority.

Students, teachers and schools alike have bigger concerns. There are serious concerns over learning loss, student absence rates are up and many students are unable to engage with distance learning adequately. Plagiarism enforcement, while still important, isn’t seen as the pressing challenge it was a year ago.

4: Greater Focus on Technology Solutions

All of this combines to put a greater focus on minimizing the time and effort that instructors have to spend on plagiarism enforcement. Whether online, in-person or a hybrid of the two, it’s become much more important for teachers to be able to quickly assess student work, including for plagiarism.

Many instructors have been reluctant to use plagiarism detection software. Many simply felt that their instincts and connection with their students was enough to warn them of most cases of plagiarism. In many cases, they were likely right.

However, with those connections strained and workloads increasing, technology is playing a much bigger role. The focus is on making the process of checking plagiarism just another phrase in the assessment process and having it take as little time as possible. Fortunately, this has been a trend in the plagiarism detection marketplace for years so the tools, at the very least, are well-positioned to help.

5: Shifting Types of Plagiarism

Finally, as school and assessment changes, so does the attempts to circumvent them. Though we’ll likely only know the actual differences in hindsight, it stands to reason that we’re going to see plagiarism and collusion on assignments that previously we wouldn’t have.

One example is the reduction of in-person assignments means that tests and projects may become targets for copying. Likewise, group projects also become targets due to less in-person interaction as students work on their parts. Simply put, changing how assessment happens and removing/reducing in-person education is going to change plagiarism, likely in unpredictable ways.

Though this is definitely an issue we’ll understand better with some hindsight, it stands to reason we’re going to be seeing some rare and unusual types of plagiarism and it’s better to be aware and on guard.

Bottom Line

While it’s cliche to say that COVID-19 has changed everything, it truly has. When it comes to academic plagiarism, this is largely a knock-on effect. COVID changed schools, which changed assessment, which will change plagiarism.

Much of this change will likely have to be understood over time but some of the changes are fairly easy to predict.

Unfortunately, fighting these changes right now will prove difficult to impossible. Schools and instructors are simply overloaded and face much more immediate challenges. Though technology can (and should) help instructors enforce academic integrity standards, it’s only a part of any solution.

Fighting plagiarism requires holistic solutions. It requires looking at everything from how students are supported, the types of assignments they receive and how they are assessed. Simply catching “cheaters” is not enough.

While times of upheaval often opportunities to make great changes, this particular upheaval brings with it much more immediate challenges.

Even as someone that is very passionate about plagiarism, even I can see that schools have much more pressing matters than focusing on the minutia of how and why students are plagiarizing. Still, this is an important area to watch, even if action on it may be coming at a much later date.

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