Friday, July 18, 2003

Plagiarism, ethics and cultural relativism

As an unemployed academic, I have an obvious alternative way of earning a living: the academic black-market; specifically, ghost-writing student essays for subjects I have previously taught.

I’m not sure if even the mention of this strikes some as scandalous. I should add, at this stage, that I have no intention of doing so. Whether one is a current, former or in-hiatus academic, my personal view is that writing student essays for money (and obviously covertly) would be a gross breach of ethics. Not that the ethics of this situation are anywhere directly stated; nor that there would appear to be any legal problems with doing it (except when it comes to current employees ghost-writing – or as it is more likely to be phrased, “assisting”; which is also the form of academic black-marketeering that is hardest to detect, for obvious reasons).

My own qualms here mean that I (chose to) live in poverty. According to an academic who claims some expertise on the topic, a growing number of academics – current and former – have no such qualms*. If this is true, my occupying the ethical high-ground here is probably a delusion, and an economically harmful one (for me) at that. On the other hand, can our universities really have so suddenly, and completely, gone to ethical hell in a handbasket? And, if so, why am I – of all people – playing the odd one out?

Sorting out the answers to these questions is actually quite easy. For a start, there is the aforementioned expert on universities and plagiarism, Jude Carroll, a UK academic currently on a tour of the seminar rooms of Australia. Her schtick follows a tried and true path – leading with a dramatic threat (and no one doubts that academic black-marketeering is, or at least could be, incredibly corrosive of the whole system), and then hosing down the threat with some robust words of reassuring pragmatism. For Jude Carroll, the key to giving her audience of academics reassurance is that tackling the problem is not ultimately a matter of ethics, but of being “holistic”, and having the necessary systems in place.

Which is the exact point at which Ms Carroll’s barnstorming bluff becomes farcical for me, at least as applied to the Australian higher education system in 2003. Quite simply, the “system” is broken. But don’t just take my own hyperbole (or otherwise) for it; let me show you how, using Jude-the-Obvious’s wisdom’s as my template and one of my own recent teaching experiences to fill in some of the gaps.

“Design out” plagiarism, instead of using a "catch and punish" approach.

I’m sure that the idea of coming up with completely new assignment/essay topics for each new intake, as a way of minimising the risk of plagiarism, has never occurred to any academic other than Ms Carroll. Sarcasm aside, it is clear from this comment:

It may surprise you but there are courses that use the same essays or practicals year after year

that Ms Carroll is unaware of the current assessment norms in Australian unis, particularly those in high-headcount core subjects. Using my own experience sessionally tutoring** such a subject at Latrobe University in 2002, one item of assessment was basically the same as the 2001 version – the names of the problem’s “characters” had been changed, but the basics of the “answer” were the same. Not having taught that subject at Latrobe previously, I wasn’t aware of this fact at the time the assignment was set, but when I did find out, I can’t say that I was particularly surprised.

I was, however, surprised by the way I found out. One of the assignments I marked, although unremarkable in its primary-school only level of command of English, stood out because the names of the characters changed midway through it. As you may have guessed by now, it turned out that this student had copied part of another student’s answer from the previous year into her answer.

Clearly, this was a case of plagiarism. More importantly, I would have thought (though I kept it to myself at the time), it was a case of such supine dumbness as to suggest that the offending student, a full-fee paying overseas one, had absolutely no business being anywhere near any place of higher education. I can’t remember the penalty the student received for this, but it certainly wasn’t course-, visa-, or career-threatening. Nor, as I have since discovered, was this one-two scenario – of mind-bendingly stupid cheating, followed by a lack of any meaningful penalty, unprecedented.

Was this, then a case of Latrobe not having had the right systems in place; of not having “designed out” plagiarism? This I cannot fully answer – the assessment at issue was set by a tenured, full-time academic, who may or may not have been culpably lazy or negligent, when all the circumstances, of workload and legitimate institutional expectations, are taken into account. Had, hypothetically, the assessment-setter been a sessional tutor on a 13-week contract, the answer here may well be different, or at least, more clear-cut.

What troubles me most about Ms Carroll’s well-meaning injunctions to Australian academics is their curiously selective relativism and realpolitik. She omits to mention the system of two-tiered wages-and-conditions structures now common in Australian and US universities; a situation which by itself, makes her use of the word “holistic”, and her one-size-fits-all approach to plagiarism, unconsciously comic.

So dare I suggest it; academic black-marketeering is currently prospering precisely because the system is broken. It is not a function of the existence of “cheat” websites, but has arisen because the implied Contract of Learning has been shirked by teachers***, whose behaviour has then been copied, at least in its (mean) spirit, by students. It is far from accidental that an effective two-tier marking system for students# has arisen alongside a two-tier employment system for their teachers. One form of “cheat”, one bending of the rules, soon leads to a cynical, “see no evil” campus-view, in which academics are encouraged to relativise and apportion blame – everywhere except in their own, holistic backyards:

She said the problem was exacerbated by high student fees, which put pressure on students to complete their degree as quickly as possible, and by schools not teaching students academic writing skills.

There were also cultural reasons, she said: "Many students from Asia show respect by copying the experts. [They think] it's not plagiarism; it's a strategy they've always used, and then they come here and they don't play by Australian rules, and find themselves in trouble."

* Triple J Morning Show interview with Jude Carroll, 9.45 am 18 July 2003. Summary will be available shortly at:

** A sessional tutor is roughly equivalent to an “adjunct” academic in the US. Current Australian practice is that they not normally expected to set assessment topics, although contractually, they can be asked, and expected to do just about anything.

*** Not without considerable duress from their employers, of course. But, as I'm talking about professional ethics here, the fact of such duress has only limited relevance.

# Periodically, allegations of "soft marking", in favour of full-fee paying overseas students, are made in Australia. While I have no doubt that such soft marking does take place, and does so mostly as a matter of institutional pragmatism than at the behest of individual academics, I regard the example of the "lazy plagiarist", outlined above, to be more telling proof. If a student obviously has such a lack of interest in learning, or even in competently plagiarising, then it is obvious to me that they stand in contempt of the institution they are studying at - a contempt which may or may not be mutual, but in either case, completely precludes the possibility of them learning anything. In such a case, any mark above zero must logically be a "soft" one.

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