Plagiarism is pernicious and pervasive. You can’t seem to get away from it because so many people are getting away with it. As a university teacher I have long been aware of so-called essay-writing services that tout their wares to students who think that by purchasing essays written by someone else and passing them off as their own they can buy their way to learning.

Fools. That’s what universities are for.

I was reminded about the plagiarism business a few weeks back when @mileymithsu started following me on Twitter. Naturally, I checked out her profile and found she was linked (literally) to the web-site of an outfit called ‘Custom Essay Services‘. She has a couple of ‘friends’ who go by @kellydenicolas and @alicetenison, both of whom have similar links to Custom Essay Services. Oddly, this curious threesome often seem to pop up synchronously on Twitter making fairly random tweets, most of which link to the — you guessed it — Custom Essay Services site.

Strange that.

Custom Essay Services presents itself as a company that has nothing but the interests of students at heart. They are passionate about enabling students to achieve their best. They feel the pain that poor students have to endure in the process of learning and are keen to alleviate their suffering. Obstenisbly, their mission is to offer ‘guidance’.

But that guidance is offered in the form of custom-written essays that students can purchase via a pricing scheme that depends on the requisite grade, word limit and deadline. Need 1000 words within 5 days to meet a 2:1 standard? Sixty quid, thankyouverymuch.

Their service is ethical, they say. To buy an essay is not cheating, they say. Essay services are so concerned about the standard of their product that each essay is carefully vetted against plagiarism software. “We do not tolerate plagiarism”, they say.

It is all so… beautiful. Sniff.

However, given their intolerance of plagiarism, I was surprised to find on the Custom Essay Services web-site an icon that is the spitting image of one used by Apple for their Pages word processor and which, I presume, belongs to the American computer company. But perhaps Apple approves of a company that, through its products, facilitates plagiarism? I’ve written to their legal department to find out.

Iconic and Ironic

Iconic and Ironic?

But I digress.

Of course, it is easy to see how unscrupulous students could abuse the products offered by Custom Essay Services and cheat. The company’s vetting of essays by plagiarism software has the effect of re-assuring their valued customers that they won’t be found out. This is explained, albeit implicitly, on the company’s web-site. I’m guessing their customers derive a great deal of solace from these reassurances.

Any student who passes off the work of another as their own is a cheat and a fraud deluding not only their teachers, but themselves as well. It is difficult to know the scale of the problem. My colleague Alice Bell has come across these ‘services’ leafleting outside the doors of my own university, Imperial College. She pointed me to a blog post by a pseudonymous essay writer — Ed Dante — who gave an eye-opening insight into the sordid business of helping students to cheat. Dante sought to justify his work by laying blame at the doors of academia and criticising our inability to properly assess students. There may be a kernel of truth in that, but it by no means exonerates students from the responsibility for their own learning. And Dante, I suspect, will eventually discover that he has made his bed in hell. What kind of life is that — helping the helpless to cheat their way through an ‘education’?

Yesterday Twitter was aflare with the experiences of another academic, Panos Ipeirotis, who had apparently thrown up his hands in despair after discovering that about a fifth of his students were cheating in some way. “Why I will never pursue cheating again” read the title of his disappointed post (which, strangely, is no longer available on Dr Ipeirotis’s blog, but can be found in Google’s cache). The scale of deception was astonishing but, despite his title, Ipeirotis had learned from his bitter experience and sought to develop strategies to reduce the likelihood of plagiarism — and got some astonishingly good work from his students in the process.

So there is hope, but we will have to fight a continuous war of attrition. As academics, it is our duty to have robust procedures for assessment (and to take companies like Custom Essay Services to task). But equally, students must have the integrity and the wit to realise that, in the long run, learning demands commitment, not cash.

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79 Responses to Plague-arism

  1. It’s not just students of course. Ghost-written papers are also a big problem, though as far as I know, the problem is largely restricted to clinical medicine. But guest authorships, almost as bad, are common throughout science.

    One approach would be to try to track down the people who do the writing for money. There can’t be so many people who can write a guaranteed 2.1 quality essay on technical aspects of crystalography.

    • Stephen says:

      David – You are right that the problem is not confined to students. I once was sent a paper for review that contained a vaguely familiar page of introduction. I eventually realised it was from one of my own papers…

      I’m not worried yet about receiving copied essays on crystallography from students, in part because it’s a topic that doesn’t feature on Essay Services’ list of subjects, though they do cover biology, medicine computing and psychology.

  2. cromercrox says:

    Meanwhile, over at Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N, we take plagiarism very seriously, and have ways of detecting it. If I told you what we did, I’d have to kill you, but it can’t hurt to reveal that it involves a wetsuit filled with lumpy custard, an old lawnmower engine and a piece of string. You have been warmed warned.

    • Stephen says:

      Do you really get much? I’d have thought that the profile of the journal and large readership would be a sufficient deterrent to would-be plagiarists.

  3. JDM says:

    It’s not difficult to devise assessments that can’t copied from year to year – in fact it’s more interesting – but it’s difficult to get around these scumbags who write to task. I can design something that I wouldn’t produce for less than £1k, but I’m sure there would be a student who would pay that for an “original” piece. Maybe it’s time to bin coursework in the sciences? It never made sense anyway.

    • Stephen says:

      Not sure we can get away from it completely but greater awareness of this issue will hopefully encourage people to be more creative in their assessment. In my experience, it is relatively easy to get a clear idea of a student’s knowledge and understanding by talking to them for half an hour.

      • JDM says:

        200+ students, at half an hour each… This is why we did away with vivas 150 years ago.

        • Stephen says:

          Well, if there were no paper exams and only a 30 min viva at the end of the 3 yrs, I think you could convince most staff to re-instate the viva (we do these anyway for final year projects).

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    Unbelievable! And here I thought cheating at bathroom breaks during exams was the only outlet left for cheating.

    Great job in identifying the copying of the Apple icon. This really is a plague.

    I suppose that one way to fight this trend is to give “in class” papers to write, where the students have limited time (and less is obviously expected, but what is written will obviously be their own work).

    As an undergrad in sciences, I do recall that senior students would pass on “lab reports” in microbiology to newer students (these were were affectionately by the students as “Newtons,” with the fable being that they were passed down from year to year from the days of Newton himself. However, despite being unethical, students could not copy them but just make sure their calculations were correct.

    On the other hand, a company advertising and selling “custom-made” papers? That’s about as disgusting as it gets. Austin might argue about homeopaths, but this is pretty pretty low on the ethical ladder.

    • Stephen says:

      Low it may be but there are plenty of these companies out there. Type ‘essay services’ into Google if you want to depress yourself further.

  5. Allan Pang says:

    Problem with students now is that they think of numbers, grades, marks and not how much they learned. There must be a problem in the system… or perhaps the wrong frame of mind of the students.

    If the system does not rely heavily on marking or if the students are there to learn and not just to pass, then learning will be put forward and not this kind of “cheating” mechanism.

    At the end of the day, these students who opt to “cheat” will learn less than those who does not. So, I don’t really think it’s a big of a deal. They can cheat all they want, they can plaigiarise, but what kind of future will they have? If a simple question of how to set up PCR in an interview, they can’t answer, because somebody else did their “homework”, then they will not get through to the job.

    • Stephen says:

      True enough but it’s not just students who think in terms of numbers – governments do it, and force schools and universities to comply. Hence the rise of the box-ticking and exam-management culture at the expense of genuine learning.

      • Allan Pang says:

        Agree. Sad but true.

        Academics are turning into adminstrative persons filling out forms and ticking boxes that they have to put student learning and research on the second priority.

        Problem is with government is they do not understand academia. They only pretend they do.

  6. Heather says:

    A friend of mine over on Facebook put up this link to a far-too-long, depressing video on how university education is perceived to be so denatured as to now be useless.

    It was depressing because it was a little bit right (dipping in here and there) even though it was made to support the agenda of a group of wackjobs. And because knowledge doesn’t seem to be the accessible purview of everyone anymore, at least in America. It’s as if there was a collective decision, “if it doesn’t want *me*, and plays hard to get, well then, I don’t want *it*”.

    When I read older Americana literature with my daughter, like the Little House series, Strawberry Girl, and the Anne of Green Gables series, – of which the last is set in Canada, but it plays to similar ideals – I am saddened by this cultural flippancy. And determined that my children, at least, should not absorb it. Education starts at home, and the least I can do is teach them how to do their research properly, to make sentences their own, and to acknowledge their sources reflexively.

    • Stephen says:

      For sure, education and educational standards start at home. The pity of it is that many kids don’t have your kids advantages on that front…

  7. cromercrox says:

    I think far too many people go to University, at least in the UK. When I was a lad it must have been 10-20%, then Tony Blair came in with his mantra that 50% of school-leavers should go to University – cue the production of large numbers of illiterati with nothing ‘degrees’ from nothing universities, who see a ‘degree’ as a qualification only rather than as a chance to learn something in depth, because they really, really want to do it, and have a talent for it. I suspect that the real students have no need of essay-writing services.

    I know my view is likely to be unpopular. But I’m a journal editor, so I’m used to being unpopular with scientists.

    (runs away)

    • Stephen says:

      I suspect it’s not that simple – but don’t really have access to data on the profiles of students who use these services. You do have to wonder whether teachers/lecturers are doing a good enough job of spotting unexpectedly good work from student’s who, in speaking, may not be able to string a sentence together. But the smarter ones will probably order essays of the ‘appropriate’ standard. (Funny how even trying to write about this debases the language).

      And I have no idea what is the correct number of students that should be attending uni…

    • I completely agree. The role of a University in the UK seems to be very different from other countries. It no longer provides purely academic studies. People go to University to become e.g. nurses, teachers, or travel agents. All very respectable jobs, but not academic and I don’t think they should be taught at University level, but at a less academic higher education level. I really don’t get the UK’s obsession with equality in this sense, streaming makes so much more sense, both in getting the best out of individuals and in serving the needs of the economy.

  8. I think in-room essays are the way to go – that’s how they did it at my university. Of course the pieces are going to be less polished – and I guess harder to mark – but true talent and knowledge will shine through. Not to sound all Hermione, but I really enjoyed taking them because it was stimulating to come up with and execute a cogent argument in 50 minutes.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for the comment Hermione Jenny.

      Yes, that type of assessment would reduce the risk of plagiarism. I should point out that the practice may be less common in science — especially in physics and chemistry where essay writing rarely used as a form of assessment. However, what has struck me in delving into this is the lengths that some people will go to in order to cheat their way to success. These essay writing ‘services’ are just part of the problem.

    • cromercrox says:

      Not to sound all Hermione, but I really enjoyed taking them because it was stimulating to come up with and execute a cogent argument in 50 minutes.

      You’re a born hack journalist, that’s why. When I took my A level in Eng. Lit. at Adult Education I was in my 30s and had been at Nature for some years. I found it impossible to write an essay – on Keats, say, or Macbeth – at home, given as much time as I liked. The only way I could do it was in class, under terrific time pressure. I got an ‘A’ in the exam, naturally….

    • Grant says:

      It seems this thing of enjoying (sort-of) the essays isn’t just limited to girl-swots – I was pretty much the same. (In fact as I’m reading this, I’m thinking I must try writing my blog posts that way. Perhaps that’s why some people are so keen on this #madwriting thing?)

      Stephen, you wrote What kind of life is that — helping the helpless to cheat their way through an ‘education’?

      A main part of the problem is, of course, that many aren’t after “the education” per se, but the qualification.

      I’m reminded of a video I showed on my blog, I think it was last year, of a lecture giving his class the third degree over cheating in exams. (I’d track down the post, but some irritating bug has left every post I’ve written now presenting as a blank page. To make matters more annoying as I don’t have access to the backend, I can’t try use my programmer’s skill to track down the cause and fix it. Instead I’m writing useless comments on other’s blogs…)

  9. Frank says:

    It is not a new subject. I know it has been on JISC’s agenda for a while. They set up the Plagiarism Advice service and helped promote the Turnitin software in the UK, for detecting plagiarism. I couldn’t see anything about custom essays but it might be worth getting in touch.

  10. Frank says:

    p.s. Do you think they could run me off a few blog posts?

  11. Jonathan says:

    Iconic plagiarism? Take a look at Panic’s witty approach to people ripping off their icon designs:

    (Of Transmit, Coda, and other Mac app fame)

    Also, is a trove of people ripping off people’s designs and artwork.

    Perhaps the academic world ought to have a similar hall of shame?

  12. Reading Ipeirotis’s post yesterday, and to a lesser extent yours today, I was struck by the idea that there may be a cultural clash at work here.

    Academia (and journalism) place a very high value on original thoughts and original words. In the business world, however, it’s often much more important to come up with useful information quickly. If your boss asks you to prepare a report on 4G wireless technologies, with an eye towards deciding which one the company should adopt, it is perfectly fine for you to search the Internet for a ready-made cogent description (or, better, multiple descriptions) of the technologies’ various pros and cons, and to use that description more or less unchanged (and uncredited, unless someone specifically asks you where you got the information) in your report. But in the academic world, this would be considered plagiarism — and indeed, Ipeirotis clearly thought of it as such.

    I think the solution is one that Ipeirotis already seems to be implementing, at least in part: assignments that require students to create something, not merely to come up with the right answers. The business world also prizes originality under these circumstances (e.g. in the form of a whizz-bang marketing campaign or a patentable new product), so the values of originality-conscious academics and their business-minded students are not in conflict.

    None of this, however, excuses paying for original essays written to order. I can’t think of a values system in which that would be ok.

    • Stephen says:

      Maybe you’re right that business cares less about the source, just about the quality of the content. But acknowledging sources, apart from being ‘right’, is also a good way of identifying sources that might be of use in the future. So the ethical practice also has real world benefits.

      Plagiarism often works in the short term — which is probably its appeal to many. But it will catch up with you eventually, as various politicians have found out…

    • chall says:

      Not to be all cheeky but when I read things like this: “If your boss asks you to prepare a report on 4G wireless technologies, with an eye towards deciding which one the company should adopt, it is perfectly fine for you to search the Internet for a ready-made cogent description (or, better, multiple descriptions) of the technologies’ various pros and cons, and to use that description more or less unchanged (and uncredited, unless someone specifically asks you where you got the information) in your report.”

      I don’t understand why referencing WHERE you found that information would be a)hard, b)time consuming, c)wrong or d)not useful for furthere “analysis if the information is valid”? I mean, proper use of telling when you have written something or when someone else has found the data – it only makes the data more reliable.

      Then again, I’m a scientist working in business fringeland so maybe I am yet to understand it?

      • I don’t have a definitive answer for why minimal or nonexistent citation is viewed as something other than a terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad thing in business.

        However, if you have ever read a scientific paper or book in which the author included multiple references in almost every sentence, you’ll know that it was not an easy read — even though, as a scientist, you’re probably pretty used to reading papers like that and mentally filtering out citations that you don’t need to look up right away. This is a skill that not everyone has had the chance (or desire) to develop, and that’s partly why footnotes etc. are often absent in books and articles written for non-academic audiences — they put readers off, and make it harder for them to get through the document.

        Now apply that same principle to a business document like an executive summary. The whole purpose of such a document is to enable the reader to assimilate a large amount of information quickly. The readability (and of course accuaracy) of the information is thus is far more important than knowing the precise details of where that information came from. Provenance isn’t irrelevant, of course, but there are competing priorities.

        • chall says:

          I understand what you mean with being “not an easy read”. However, you could always footnote them with ‘numbers up in the right corner of the end of the sentence’ (I think it’s referred to as Oxford reference system?).

          I guess to me it would be hard to trust/believe all the infotmation collected in one of those reports if I had no idea where the ‘collector” had found all the references…. I realise that this might point me out as a reluctant delegator and trustor in my subordinates – but also that I truly believe people can make accidental mistakes and that would be easier checked up when using references.

          I’ve moved to the outskirts of Stephen’s blog post though…. sorry for meandering.

          • nico says:

            Chall, the citation system you are thinking of is Vancouver, a version of which we use at everyone’s favourite science journal starting with N, and which is quite unobtrusive, if I may say so myself. And yes, if you got the information from somewhere rather than generated the data/process/idea yourself, it must always be cited.
            My experience in business report writing is limited to 1 (one) technical report, and the company we delivered it to were actually very pleased that they could look where we got our info in the first place.

            • Stephen says:

              Thanks Nico. Vancouver — I wonder why? You learn something new every day (and that’s my quota for today sorted).

        • Stephen says:

          Margaret – I agree with Chall: it seems to me that problem is easily solved with the right choice of citation indicator.

          • Fair enough, maybe ease-of-reading isn’t a big factor in making full citation less common in business writing. But if not that, then what? Why is citation not as valued/mandatory in a business context as it is in an academic one?

            I’m not arguing that citations have no value in business – I can absolutely see why nico’s client appreciated the fact that s/he had gone to the trouble of including them. But nico’s story also implies that doing so was not the norm, and I’d like to understand why.

            The answer seems especially relevant given that most of today’s students are going to find jobs in business(ish) fields rather than academia(ish) ones…

  13. Matt Wall says:

    Personally, I think the custom essay writing services are probably only an issue for a small minority of students. The bigger issue is simply out-and-out laziness, and copying from websites or other electronic sources. The scale of this issue is simply mind-boggling, and Universities are struggling to adjust to the new reality that the internet has brought about. At one department I know of, the ‘official’ punishment for plagiarism (enshrined in the University’s regulations) was a failing grade for that course, which meant that (if the student was a 2nd or 3rd year) they effectively failed the year and would either have to do it again, or leave the course. Despite many, many instances of the most blatant plagiarism being identified this was never, never enforced – if it had been, at least half the student body in each year would have had to repeat or leave – clearly not practical. A head of department told me once that he spent approximately 30% of his time dealing with student plagiarism, and that he usually just assigned them a bare-pass grade for that piece of coursework (if it wasn’t too bad) or got them to re-submit the essay.

    This is such an enormous waste of time for everyone involved, and I wish I had a good answer for it, but it seems likely that it’s a problem that will persist.

    • Stephen says:

      As any parent will tell you, there’s no point in having a rule if you are not going to enforce it. I think we probably have to do more to educate students about plagiarism on day one and explain clearly the severe consequences of cheating…

      • nico says:

        Ah yes but do you know of any case where the rules have been enforced?
        I have never heard of students being kicked out for plagiarism.

        • Stephen says:

          I know of punishments being issued for this. Can’t give specific details, I’m afraid. However, having just become Director of Undergraduate Studies in my department, I will be looking to promote a positive attitude to learning. I should emphasise of course that most students already have this.

        • stephenemoss says:

          The rules are indeed enforced at some institutions. A first offense will almost certainly elicit a written warning, with outright expulsion from the course for persistent recidivists. Alternatively, students may be restricted to achieving a pass degree only, and of course the assurance that any reference requested by a future employer will highlight the fact that the student has plagiarised.

          But in my view there is too much emphasis placed on essay writing as a tool to evaluate student performance. Students generally dislike writing essays (apart from a few swots on this blog), and academics rarely enjoy marking them. And what are we judging? Certainly not intelligence. The amount of time a student is willing to spend extracting information from books, internet, journals etc? Writing skills perhaps?

          Demonstration of knowledge acquisition is desirable, however I would argue that ‘understanding’ is the most important indicator of student ability, and this is very difficult to assess in an essay.

          • In my Faculty typical penalties for a first offence would be:

            – internal interview w course leader (or sometimes Faculty disciplinary panel if a ‘big’ piece of work involved); and
            – formal written warning PLUS mark penalty.

            Default penalty for anything extensively plagiarised (on a 1st offence) is a mark of zero for that particular piece of work ( say a write up of one lab class). If it is something like a dissertation or extended report in yr 1 or 2, penalty tends to be an escalating % of marks as per the extent of the plagiarism.. -20%, -40%, up (down?) to getting zero.

            For particularly bad cases students CAN also be penalised the credits for the piece of work too (which in turn can stop them passing the year or even getting an honours degree)

            Second offence after a previous formal warning would attract consequently more severe penalties; definitely AT LEAST a full Faculty disciplinary hearing, possibly a full Univ panel. Penalty apart from marks/credits for particular piece of work could be failing year or being penalised a full degree class. I have certainly been involved with a case of extensive plagiarism in a final year dissertation a decade back where the student was penalised a full degree class (final overall mark reduced to the next class down).

            I’m pretty sure expulsion from the Univ is on the books as a possible penalty, but in practise I imagine that would have to be both an extensive case of plagiarism AND a repeat offence. Of course, if you lose credits for a final year unit you can only get an ‘ordinary’ (unclassified) degree, so that is also a pretty severe punishment in the UK system.

            Anyway, the general principles are:

            1. Students informed extensively about plagiarism in yr 1 of the course, with examples & exercises

            2. Zero tolerance for any detected plagiarism.

            3. Penalties get more severe with

            i extent of plagiarism
            ii year of course
            iii repeat offence


            The major problem (from an ‘enforcement’ POV) with the kind of ‘bespoke’ cheating services Stephen identifies is that it is difficult or even impossible to bust someone for plagiarism without concrete (documentary) evidence. So if you can’t find the source using (e.g.) TurnItIn, you are a bit hamstrung, even if you strongly believe the student could not possibly have written the piece of work they have turned in. It is a ‘potential legal problem of proof’, basically.

            • @Austin – expulsion is definitely not only on the books at our esteemed institution but does happen. For my sins I deal with plagiarism cases in my school and I’ve seen at least one case where the student was expelled.

        • A onetime classmate of mine was “rusticated” for a minor violation of citation procedure.

          It’s been a while, so I’m fuzzy on the details (which I probably wasn’t meant to know in the first place — I heard them from a lecturer, not my classmate). But IIRC, source A said something, my classmate subsequently found much the same information in source B, they then cited source B in a paper, and after discovering that this was not best practice, they “confessed” to the relevant lecturer . The lecturer promptly reported the student to the honour council, and the student was suspended for a term.

          I am afraid this episode has rather coloured my views on the ways that plagiarists are investigated and punished. Of course, people who copy others’ work or buy essays online should have the book thrown at them. But there are also lesser offences, and the available punishments should reflect this.

          • That wouldn’t be any kind of disciplinary matter at all in our system, I think, at least not at undergrad level.

            ‘Mis-citing’ and the so-common-as-to-be-practically-the-rule secondary citing (i.e. mentioning ref A in text because you read a quote from it in ref B, and citing B, but not having ref A in your ref list) would get you marked down, but would not be viewed as malpractice.

  14. Matt Wall says:

    Sorry – one additional comment. Lots of people have mentioned other examples of work being appropriated by others (on websites, in papers, in a business context etc.). While all this is clearly wrong, it seems a slightly different issue to students plagiarising for their coursework. The purpose of setting essays for students is not for the lecturer’s amusement (far from it) or to generate 100 poorly-written treatments of the same topic for the sake of it – the purpose of an essay is for the student to do some research, think about the issues, and then produce something by which these processes can be assessed in a reasonably convenient form. The written piece of work is, in a sense, incidental to the true purpose, which is for the student to gain some knowledge in the process of producing it. Students who blatantly plagiarise are therefore not only transgressing a fairly abstract academic moral code, they are entirely subverting the whole process, and rendering it an enormous waste of everyone’s time.

    I think this is different to an academic recycling parts of an introduction in a couple of similar papers, on the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it principle.

    • Stephen says:

      Yes, all true. In part (at least in the UK) the situation is not helped by the way that school course-work can be ‘marked’ and then returned to the student to be fixed before being marked officially. That contributes to the exam-management atmosphere that seems to have pervaded the school system since the introduction of league-tables. The same thing is probably creeping into the university sector, where tables comparing different institutions are often consulted when students make their choices. I’m concerned also that once students are paying £9000 per annum to get into uni, they’ll be expecting not an education but a certificate.

    • A few years back (pre TurnItIn, but with cut ‘n’paste already understood to be rampant, in the student body), I heard about an academic who told the students in his/her tutorial group not to bother handing in essays for marking if they were simply going to lift them off the internet. S/he told them that, if they were inclined to cut’n’paste, they should just not bother, and s/he would give them the bare passing mark for being honest enough not to waste his/her, and their, time. As the tutorial component was pass/fail, the students who did this would still pass the unit.

      S/he also told them that if, on the other hand, they wanted to turn in a REAL essay, researched and written by them and not copied, s/he would annotate and grade it. The object would be learning something and getting feedback and guidance, but not intrinsically scoring points.

      As I remember it, s/he said about 60% of the students chose to write the essay. The other 40% didn’t bother.

      • Steve Caplan says:

        Would be interesting to see how what percent of the 60% writers are still in science today as ooposed to the not-botherers.

        Scary thought if the correlation were to show that those that didn’t bother are all tenure track researchers whereas the “writers” have all quit science!

      • Stephen says:

        I guess that has the merit of being an honest approach (for tutor and students). I wonder did that academic go on to challenge the 40% who couldn’t be bothered?

      • As I heard it this was 1st or 2nd yr undergraduate students, so you necessarily wouldn’t expect all that many to stay in science beyond the BSc, and certainly not for research careers.

        Thinking of our own degrees, the top third of students in the yr group distribution are notably more likely to stay in science beyond Bachelor degree level than the rest of the distribution. But within that top third are a good fraction who go off to do healthcare degrees (medicine primarily, but also dentistry or physiotherapy ), and also a group that leave science to go into management-y things (inc consultancy, FSM help us).

        Overall, I would expect students who are (for instance) going to go on to do PhDs would be less likely to take the ‘don’t bother’ option. I think what this decision would mostly reflect was actual basic intellectual curiosity about scientific things (not universal in the students we teach – ! – so likely ditto in the story, which was reported to me from a comparable Univ to ours).

        There is also, of course, a bit of “desperate desire to get high marks’ around in the student body everywhere, but the people most focussed on that in and of itself are also often given to short-cutting, in my experience. I reckon those types would see that it was ‘no gain’ in the kind of ‘pass only’ example in the story, so might well not turn anything in. Another thing you often see such students do, BTW, is try and take units they think will be especially easy to score highly in, like a basic level foreign language unit when they have already done the language at school.

        Anyway, to do the comparison Steve wants I suspect you might have to ‘run the test’ a bit higher up, say in a Master’s level course.

  15. cromercrox says:

    I’m concerned also that once students are paying £9000 per annum to get into uni, they’ll be expecting not an education but a certificate

    And if they don’t get one they’ll sue you.

    • nico says:

      Maybe slightly off topic, but back in the land of the Gauls attending lectures at university is (in theory at least-you can’t attend practicals) free. You are being charged for sitting an exam and being marked. I have seen students sit in say Medicine course for a year before registering for that year and sitting all through it again, to maximise their chances of getting into second year (~10% success). Some of them even claim the dole while doing so, not that I encourage this practice. And in highly subscribed courses (like most science), plagiarism nowadays means almost always a zero for the essay or expulsion.

      • Stephen says:

        Does that system work? I’m all for encouraging curiosity and exploration, but not at any price.

        • nico says:

          Well, there are certainly many issues with the French system, but they do get some pretty good research/training out of it, only there is a lot of waste. In a typical first year general Biology course there are about 600 students, but only 150 or so in total will come out with a “Maitrise” (4 years later) in various specialities, if that. The cost of “educating” (or as we call it, “culling”) is high, with the result that I studied in gigantic amphitheatres with little or not heating in winter and a leaky roof. The whole campus had originally be designed as a gift for Morocco, so very airy and spread out, great for summer (when students are out, natch). But when it didn’t get built there the university got the plans for cheap and built it on top of a hill in Auvergne, where the temperature can drop to 15-20C below zero in winter (to be fair the labs were quite good). So yes, there are issues of frozen/dejected students.

  16. Irene Hames says:

    Slightly off the main theme but picking up on a couple of earlier comments – COPE (the Committee on Publication Ethics) has produced a discussion paper on plagiarism in research publication and is keen to receive comments from all interested parties – researchers and authors as well as editors and publishers.

    Comments from anyone here would be very welcome!

    (declaration – I’m on COPE’s Council)

  17. chall says:

    Interesting post Stephen!

    As I wrote in my comment higher up I fail to see why the references to information from others is so hard to put in a paper – then again, it might have to be in regards to what you mention in the post, that maybe “we” (teachers) have failed to teach basic writing skills or so in earlier school?

    Or, like I think it is being the slightly cynical person, it has to do with “what’s important today is not to know how to do things, but know how to get it done*” and somewhere there it’s not intersteing to know it yourself…..

    As for the writing papers etc, when I went to undergrad we always had to make a presentation of the paper and answer questions from our fellow students and/or teachers while presenting. I’m sure it’s doable when you haven’t written it yourself, but it would still require you to learn something and I would think you might as well write the thing yourself then.

    *like getting someone to write the paper for it since that gives you the grade you want….

    • Stephen says:

      I think there is something in your remark that, for some, “what’s important today is not to know how to do things, but know how to get it done” – or at least to blag your way to getting it done. I guess this is of a piece with the students that Austin mentions above who are really only looking for the path of least resistance through their ‘education’.

      We need to challenge these people more. Many, I suspect, realise the error of this approach later in life.

      • chall says:

        Stephen, I agree that there is merit to “knowing how to get it done” attitude on many occasions. However, since i’m an old school bore*, I do think there are certain facts (or knowledge) that is needed to know the “how”. Not to mention, knowing when you’re being tricked/fooled bout the how.

        I encountered something similar when asking high school students about geography and countries…(inside a discussion about Europe&US and economic climate) their general answer was “why would I care to learn where these countries are, I’d just look it up on my iPhone”. Yes… I had half a heart of asking them to come with me into the wild for a weekend where there is no wifi and see what they’d do then 😉

        *dispite my young apparence 😉

        • Stephen says:

          You should have done it! (But I think I’ve seen that movie – all the kids got killed in the end…)

  18. Re ‘We need to teach students about plagiarism’, this is certainly important, as otherwise a stock response of those caught doing it tends to be ‘Well I didn’t know what it was / that it was wrong’.

    One thing we do is to use the exercise in this article, or something very similar, as a tutorial task early in yr 1 across all our biosci degrees. The idea is that, once students have worked through this (alone & then in discn w the tutor), they cannot really be in any doubt what plagiarism is in the University context. It also makes a good occasion for the tutor to tell them about what the likely penalties are.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for the link Austin – the more people in universities who are aware of the problems with plagiarism, the harder it will be for cheat-enablers like Custom Essay Services to operate.

  19. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Great post, Stephen, and nice catch on the ripped-off logo. I bet they’d respond to a cease and desist letter from Apple more quickly than to the various tweets I’ve seen you send their way recently 🙂

    • Stephen says:

      That’s what I’m hoping for Cath – please RT it to any Mac-fans among your friends in twitter-land. I think Apple is proud of its links with education and I’m sure they don’t want them to be sullied in this way.

  20. Glenn Masson says:

    Excellent article – you’re obviously passionate about plagiarism. Out of interest, what would you suggest as a standard operating protocol for preventing plagiarism? Have you ever encountered cheating/plagiarism on your courses? Were you satisfied with the outcome?

    During my undergraduate course, the University of Sheffield quite loudly publicised any detected plagiarism cases highlighting the consequences – omitting the student’s name of course – as a deterrent. Most of the time the identity of the student was an open secret on campus – especially within the department involved. Do you think naming (albeit not explicitly) and shaming is an effective deterrent? I think it was pretty harsh treatment for students who were young, naive, and often under a lot of pressure to succeed.

    • Stephen says:

      It certainly gets my goat though I wouldn’t say that I have yet developed a strategy (apart from continuous sniping at Custom Essay Services on Twitter).

      However, the conversation on this comment thread (along with the discussion flowing from the post by Panos Ipeirotis that I linked to) has been a good way to explore options that I may want to implement in my role as Director of Undergraduate Studies.

      I’m wary of adopting a public name and shame approach — too likely to be lead to unpleasant consequences. I’m also mindful that initial offences may well be due to ignorance or naiveté on the part of the student. Setting out the principles of learning at the outset of our degree programs is the way to go. I think it will also be important to raise consciousness of this issue among staff.

      Have I discovered plagiarism among our own students? There have certainly been offenders and they are heavily sanctioned, though I’d have to look at the policy document again to remind myself of the details.

    • Stephen says:

      Yes thanks Alice – a colleague pointed it out this morning on G+. You can see why institutions would be reluctant for these issues to be discussed in quantitative detail in public but it’s a shame that he had to completely remove the post. Fortunately, there’s always Google cache.. (actually: how long does that last?)

  21. Frank says:

    Also covered in the Times Higher now.

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