Let No One Else’s Work Evade Your Eyes…
Could you spot an essay that had been partially lifted from the internet? Would you know how or where to check that a pupil’s work was actually the pupil’s work? If you think you can, read on.
Last week saw me attending a Workshop with the SQA to look at the new Writing Folio that has been introduced to Higher English. As part of that process, we are handed exemplar scripts which we then mark before being given a walkthrough of the grades the SQA would award. Such is the way we learn about the standards that we are to apply to the pupils’ work.
The first couple of examples were fairly straightforward and I was relieved to be spot on with my attempts to grade them. Then we were asked to look at a new example: a discursive essay on Animal Testing.
I began to read it and thought it started OK, though with a few glitches in expression. Nothing serious. Then about half-way through it, I became uneasy. My teacher ‘bat-sense’ was kicking in. Something didn’t ring true about the essay. It just didn’t feel ‘right’.
I was sure that the style was ‘wrong’ so I pulled out my iPhone, opened a browser and typed in one of the sentences I was suspicious about – remembering to first place it between quotation marks so that I would only get exact matches.
I got 52 exact matches on a sentence that a pupil had submitted for assessment, and which had then been presented to us as an example essay. The first hit was from Yahoo answers… 4 years ago.
To make matters even more interesting, that first hit also had a reference where the person posting the answer had pulled the information from. It came from a site called echeat.com which has the wonderfully ironic subheading “It’s not cheating, it’s collaborating”.
I alerted the SQA team and after a discussion, they quickly informed us that the essay had evidence of plagiarism. What happens next to the writer of the essay will be up to SQA, but I realised that this was a watershed moment for a lot of reasons.
When I got home, I typed up the whole essay and submitted it to a couple of sites I use to check pupil work: Plagiarism Checker and The Plagiarism Checker. I wish I could share the text with you so you could carry out the same exercise.
The Plagiarism checker returned the following:
I’ve blurred the sentences being checked to prevent identification at the moment. The ‘Possible Plagiarism’ links will take you to a Google search result which compares sentences/phrases from the essay with the internet. This horrified me:
In 0.15 seconds, Google had found 1,370 instances of a sentence from the pupil’s ‘original’ essay scattered across the internet.
Almost the entire essay had been copied and pasted from the net… and no one had noticed until I looked at it.
To put that into context, this was an essay that had been selected for inclusion as an example at a given level, and which had been used at several workshops before the one I attended. In short, I estimate that somewhere between one and two hundred English teachers had looked at this essay before I noticed there was something wrong with it. If this is the case, what chance does an average classroom teacher or exam marker have of catching plagiarism?
I think there is much we can learn from this. I also think this is a problem for all teachers of all subjects. The internet is here to stay so we need to learn to adapt our practice to accommodate it.
- I think it is imperative that the SQA keep the essay as an exemplar to highlight the issue. This is not something that is going to go away.
- We need to make sure teachers know how to check the provenance of every piece of coursework submitted by pupils;
- We need to make sure pupils are taught from a very early age how to use the internet wisely for research, and especially, how to synthesise what they find into new forms which are not merely copied and pasted;
- We need to accept that all pupil work should be submitted electronically so that the basic checking of scripts can be carried out automatically;
- We need to teach all pupils how to attribute and link their work to the sources from which it originated; and lastly,
- We need to start developing an online presence for every pupil where they can keep a log of the stages of production for all their work so that, if required, this can be compared to the final submission.
- What else? (Please post your suggestions in the comments!)
What this incident has shown me is that this is a problem of our own making. For too long we have encouraged the pupils to ‘use the internet’ without teaching them how to do so, or what using the internet means. We cannot really be too surprised that, given the pressure pupils are under, they resort to the ‘easy’ way out. Plagiarism is a fact of life. People have always copied, but to say that it is ‘too easy for pupils to copy because of the internet’ is a cop out. It is just as easy for us to find and adopt strategies to combat this if the teacher has sufficiently good ICT skills… but that is a completely different question.
If you want to introduce the topic of plagiarism to your pupils, you could do worse than letting them hear and read the great Tom Lehrer singing Lobachevsky. It is freely and legally available at the National Curve Bank, and contains the immortal lines:
Let no one else’s work evade your eyes,
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don’t shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize…
Only be sure always to call it please research.
PS: This post is available under a CC license! 😉