Sunday, August 11, 2019

Plagiarism, or I did not know I was cheating ....

I began teaching at university over two decades ago and in that time one (well, more than one but this is the one about which I am blogging right now) discourse has remained constant: I am frequently told that students inadvertently plagiarize because they don't know that it is wrong. A recent Voice of America article on the subject suggested that international students may be particularly susceptible to what one web site (from UOIT) has called "accidental plagiarism." Here is a quote from that site:

Accidental Plagiarism might occur when you do not really understand how to properly paraphrase, quote and cite your research. Not knowing the proper method of documentation can result in students misattributing someone else's words or ideas as their own. In other words, if you have paraphrased research from a book or an article or a website, but you do not include an in-text citation, the reader will assume that the idea and/or words are yours, not someone else's.

This kind of logic is often combined when dealing with international students by something that strikes me as shockingly close to racialization pretending to be an open progressive effort to understand difference. I have been told that "they" (international students) don't know that plagiarism is wrong because in "their" culture, it is acceptable.

To be clear about my perspective: I don't believe it. OK, sure, it is possible that there is a student or two "out there" who does not know that cheating is wrong.  I think it is a convenient story we tell ourselves in order to try to explain cheating away as inadvertent. I don't see why we need to. This perspective runs the risk of making me sound like a conservative curmudgeon, but remember, I've already said that the vast majority (well over 9 out of 10 in my experience) of students are 100% honest. When we talk about cheaters, then, we are talking about a small group and I see no reason to not have a frank discussion about what motivates that small group. In fact it might help us.

Honesty and Dishonesty 

The first thing you might notice is that there is a general aversion to calling cheating, cheating. We use a series of other words and those words are, in the end, likely more accurate and ... so ... good ...  we use them. But, they also run the risk of making cheating sound not quite so bad. This was not cheating ... it was an "infringement of policies related to academic dishonesty."  In my experience, students are well aware of what cheating is. They had had this explained to them in high school (often over and over again) and in university (often over and over again). Indeed, I would hazard a guess that a student going into, say, the Winter semester of their first year has been warned against plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty at least a half dozen times (if we include orientation) and likely five times (if they take five courses per semester), in writing. In other words, the average first year student getting to the Winter semester of their first year has had written and oral discussions and warnings about academic dishonesty and its importance and consequences close to a dozen times in university *alone,* not counting high school or from friends or family.

Moreover, we need to remember that universities teach adults. Yes, I know, "emerging adults" or some other similar term (we used to talk about the "cultural extension of childhood" when I was in grad school a generation ago) is in use that means that students attending university are not as old, as it were, as they used to be in terms of maturity but, frankly, they are not kids either and should not be treated as such. To the best of my knowledge, they don't want to be treated as such. It strains my imagination to believe that an adult cannot tell the difference between honesty and dishonesty, between cheating and not cheating.

Here is a thought exercise. Imagine you own a TV (I know I used this example in my last post) and someone comes in and takes it. Have they stolen it from you? Another one: imagine that you go to the store to buy, say, bread. The bread costs $2 and you pass the clerk a fiver. She rings it in but does not give you your change and instead puts it in her pocket. Has she robbed you?

In my experience, students have no difficulty telling right from wrong and know precisely what cheating is. In fact, students often spend part of their time when they meet with me, telling me what is right and what is wrong (the university should ... faculty should ...). They know there is a difference between honesty and dishonesty (in an exercise I do in class to illustrate this point, I ask the class how many want a dishonest roommate?). So, if this is the case, why do students still cheat, even if it is a small percentage. Is it that there are just so many bad apples "out there" and that is the way it is?


Yes ... in part. There are simply dishonest people out there. The problem for instructors is that I don't think we ever really catch those people at least no regularly. The professional cheaters -- the dishonest people -- I have long suspected don't get caught. They are just too good (and likely have enough resources) and so generally manage to avoid getting nabbed.

The more common scenario we run into, I think, is twofold: (a) the amateur cheater, and (b) the cheater who skirts the edges of honesty.

The amateur cheater is a student who makes bad choices. In most of the rest of their lives and in their studies, they are honest but, for one reason or another, they decide to step over the line on a particular paper or assignment. Some assignments, in fact, might be easier to cheat on then others. From what I can tell, students make this decision for a variety of reasons. They have waited too long to start a paper, their grades were much worse than they had hoped, the reality of a failing semester starts to sink in, and the like.  When a student makes this decision (the decision to cheat), I actually don't think they see themselves as being dishonest or cheating. In fact, most students that I've talked to after flagging their work vehemently deny that they are cheaters (even if they avoid discussing the specific work, say, a paper, we are discussing).  Their self image is not that of a dishonest person and, moreover, I gain a sense that they are also genuinely upset at the choices they made that got them to that point. Some students are, in fact, overly emotional at the entire situation.

This is where I think the issue of international students comes into play. I reject the idea that dishonesty is acceptable in specific cultures. I'm going to make a broader point that applies to contemporary Canadian culture in a minute about the supposed legitimacy of deception, but I think it also applies more generally. That does not mean that dishonesty and cheating are simply accepted. Nor, for instance, should we assume that because Country X has a bad government (perhaps where there is a higher degree of, say, bribery than in Canada) that we should, ipso facto, assume a general level of graft in the culture. I have encountered people from a broad range of countries who are hard-working, thoroughly honest, interested in learning, and proud of their accomplishments (that is, not wanting to take short cuts).  It might, for instance, be true that the Russian government and sports ministry, as examples, has problems with honesty but that does not mean that Russian culture is mired in a belief that corruption is OK.

This takes on a racialized dynamic when applied to students from developing economies. When we say that "cheating is OK in India" (as an example), we are making a seriously negative, big, and generalized statement about Indian culture. I've met dishonest Indians, to be sure, in the same way that I have met dishonest Canadians and dishonest whonever, but I've met far far more honest Indian (and Canadian and whomever) students over the years.

When VOA reports on the problems of academic dishonesty with regard to foreign students in the US, I would be far happier with a multi-factor analysis that takes issues of the context in which decisions are made into account than making a general blanket statement about a culture.

The Boundaries of Honesty

Complicating this factor are other issues related to the way in which we (in this case, as Canadians) think about rules and reward "success." Social historians (I think it was Edward Thompson who I first read on this point as an undergraduate) have long pointed out that, in effect, not all rules are created equal. Some have general popular support and others, for a variety of reasons, do not. For example, we all tend to agree that robbery is not good and should be a crime. But, what about speeding?  I've not looked up the research on this (I know, I should) but I'd guess about half the people I know speed. In doing so, they are breaking the law but I doubt very much they consider themselves to be a criminal (yet, by breaking the law, this is actually what they are). What about taxes ... taking a bit of pay under the table? Or, paying for something in cash and ... shucks ... tax was not charged? Trying to avoid taxes are one of those things that so many people do and yet it takes us into a black market economy where we are breaking the law. I knew a person who would have been shocked if anyone had suggested he was not anything but a law and order kind of person. Yet, he broke the law not regularly but repeatedly with regard to taxes. If I had called him a criminal, he would have shown me the door.

Now, we can get into the reasons for this another time, but you see the point: in Canada, we have rules that we stick to and rules that we don't. We have some violations of the law that enjoy some measure of social acceptance and some that do not.

Cheating, say, plagiarism, does not fall into this category but other forms of academic dishonesty seem to. Students who are honest and would be upset at anyone saying their behaviour was dishonest will skirt the rules, even while they don't directly fracture them.  You can all think of instances where this is the case: claims of computer problems, illness, omitting reasons (I am sorry I missed class, without explaining why), and the like. One that I encountered at Mt A a few years about was what I call the "around about" citation. The citation might not be exact (the page number might be off, or the precise reference not exact) but I met students who considered that basically OK because they had provided a citation and it was "close enough."

We complicate the boundaries of honesty still further by prizing success without asking too often where that success comes from. Success is assumed to be its own marker. Thus, we are always running into athletes who take PEDs but we fall for it again and again and again because of that discourse of success. As long as the athlete is performing, exactly why they are performing that way does not come under a great deal of scrutiny. What about politics? Complaining about exactly how the other party won is often cast as sour grapes. Robocalls, in-and-out financing, scripted comments that admit a great deal of ambiguity but which pass for talking points .... If you raise concerns about these, the response will often be "everyone does it" as if that were an excuse (imagine if we used that line as a legitimate ground to not convict someone, yes, admittedly my client robbed the store, your honour, but everyone does it; not guilty!).

I have gone on way too long here but you see the point. In addition to the ambiguities we construct around rules (some are legitimate; others permeable), the disjunctures we accept with regard to personal identity (I am not a criminal even if I break the law), and the way in which we prize success and ignore process (PEDs, electoral silliness), it is not difficult to figure out that bad decisions have some back up. Every time a student goes to make a decision -- to cut and paste, say -- I suspect these things or something like them runs through their minds: its not that bad, everyone's doing it, it is just one time, it is a really small infraction, I need to succeed (or, "do whatever it takes").

Cheating, its not just for cheaters

The good news is that even with all of this going on, the students I encounter are a good bunch who stick to the straight and narrow, by and large want to learn, are interested in their subjects, and avoid academic dishonesty as best they can. One of the reasons I reject the "accidental cheating" hypothesis is that it disguises other processes that I think we should engage. The decision to step over the line is made after repeated warnings, but also made in a specific context. It is that context that we need to draw up, draw to light, and engage. If we do, I suspect the small amount of dishonest actions that we have in the PSE environment will shrink even further.

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