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This piece was written as a result of some highjinks on here, but was aimed at general circulation. I didn't manage to place the article so I thought I'd shove it up here instead. It's more aimed at parents with kids doing GCSEs and A levels but the principles are the same. I hope people find it useful, and not too patronising.

 

Ever seen anyone drunk online? It’s very funny, because they don’t slur their words; they slur their typing. This happened a few weeks back on a forum I’m a member of. As a joke “punishment” we gave Ms Tipsy an essay to write, on the effects of alcohol. Ms Tipsy played along and produced a very impressive essay, with the sort of detail I hadn’t expected. Impressive, that is, until I saw a rather odd sentence. I copied the whole phrase into a search engine, and it took me to the first reference used by this person. The whole paragraph had been copied and pasted from the reference. I did the same with other phrases and found that the entire article consisted of paragraphs grafted together. We couldn’t be cross about this; it was a joke essay after all, and now the joke was on us. But it did make me worry about what my own kids are churning out for their exams. Are they doing the same? Surely this is a big concern for any parent or grandparent nowadays? If I were a teacher/examiner and this had been a piece of coursework, the student would have received zero. How common is this cobbling together of other people’s work? And what steps do exam boards and teachers take to stop this from happening?

I have two girls. Tanya is now doing A levels. Do they understand the concept of plagiarism? Are they risking their exams and their future by doing it? And are they competing for university places with children who are blatantly lifting other people’s work, passing it off as their own, and gaining top marks?

The purpose of an essay or coursework when studying for an exam is for the student to demonstrate to the examiner that they understand the subject. This won’t happen if the piece is plagiarised. At best, the student may understand and remember every word. At worst, the student understands nothing, yet would gain good marks. This means the good and the poor would end up with similar exam results, making a mockery of the whole exam system.

Surely, I thought, there are safeguards against such cheating? So I asked Tanya what steps were taken to ensure that they didn’t cheat. She told me that the Examination Boards have advanced computer software which is used to check essays and can spot plagiarism, but it has limitations, such as when a piece is handwritten. The quantity of work means that not every piece of coursework can be checked. Most school learning nowadays is as bullet points, notes and diagrams as there is so much to learn. Essays are not considered effective learning tools, except as practise writing them. These tend not to be plagiarise because they are set on what has just been covered in class. Most good teachers can spot plagiarised work because they get a feel for their student’s style and know their student’s level of ability, especially after say, half a term.

I felt reassured by this until Tanya told me that many subjects at GCSE don’t do essays now. The only ones which do are English language, English literature, and History. GCSE at science level tend to have multiple choice, short answer, and long answer questions. The exam will ask for information on a lot of topics rather than one huge topic. This is good in that it tests the range of knowledge of a child. What it fails to do is test their understanding. Also, there is a big flaw with multiple choice. In those four answers will be the correct answer. This in itself will remind the child of what he has learned. It prompts the child for the correct answer; gives them a clue. If you were to ask the question without providing four potential answers, a child who does not know the subject well may fail to answer that question. Present them with 4 answers and he has a one in four chance of a correct answer just with a random answer. But the odds are higher than that if he can eliminate one or two of the answers as obviously wrong. And if the correct answer triggers the memory, he will answer correctly.

Is this such a bad thing? I think it is, because everyone is doing so well at GCSE nowadays that universities have very little to gauge their choices on when selecting students. Tanya had been told she has to do extracurricular activities to demonstrate that she is better than the rest. This puts time pressures on her, and she is already covering more subjects at A level than I did years ago. On top of that she is doing an additional Open University unit. They have no time for PE in the weekly timetable. It also puts an intolerable strain on the teachers.

From what Tanya told me, it seems that at GCSE level, there is not likely to be much plagiarism. It’s at A level and beyond that this problem might surface. This fear was reinforced by the headline news in January that plagiarism is a serious problem is schools. A survey by the Association of Teachers and lectures in December 07 showed that 58% of teachers thought it a problem, some giving some examples of flagrant plagiarism, even including adverts lifted at the same time as the text.

Coincidentally in December 07, I asked some people for their experiences of plagiarism. The first example I was told about shows that it can happen at GCSE though. One person, whose mother is a teacher, had a pupil whose work was exceptional, until this pupil used a phrase in a poem which was from a familiar piece. Now, it is possible to plagiarise lines without realising, especially in poetry, because when you’re writing it, it sounds fitting. So to avoid stripping this pupil of her exam grades unjustly, his other English coursework came under scrutiny. It was all riddled with plagiarised material, and he lost all his coursework marks.

I told this to Tanya, and she said that the policy is, if a child has been shown to have plagiarised in one subject, then all their coursework from all their subjects is closely investigated. This is why her school take great steps to warn children that their work must be original.

But even beyond A level, the temptation is there. An (anonymous) lecturer at a Northern university told me:

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I had two cases of plagiarism with students last year. The essays were very obviously cobbled together. The irony is that had they referenced the bits they had used, they would have been in much less trouble. As I was their personal tutor, I was able to throw the essays back and tell them that they had to re-submit answering different questions. They weren't happy but the message got home (to every one else on the course too) and there were no more instances.

 

Another lecturer at a different university told me:

 

We have seen a considerable increase over the past decade in the number of cases of plagiarism being reported where I teach.  Some of it is blatant wrongdoing, intentional and in full knowledge that it is wrong; some could be put down to naivety and a poor understanding of what defines plagiarism, others in the mistaken belief that it is acceptable if you make some minor changes. We use a software package which is very affective at catching them out.  It colour codes the lifted elements of the essay and provides a direct internet link to the original source, it also gives a percentage of how much is plagiarised and how much is original material.  The best I had was 96% plagiarised; he simply added filler words to links paragraphs and sentences.  Initially he denied it, then I showed him the evidence, he spluttered and protested then agreed to completely rewrite it.

The process, though, is time consuming. The best detection method is your familiarity with the student, you know what they are and are not capable of producing.  If in doubt, simply ask them to explain and particularly complex point to you. That always gets them if it’s copied.

A third lecturer told me:

One of the daftest examples of plagiarism I read was in an essay on the Shakespeare play, The Tempest.  The idiot had pretty much copied chunks from "Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare" - this book is a very well-known literary précis of Shakespeare's works!  As soon as I read it, I recognised the style of writing.

An 'A'-level student wrote a very scholarly essay on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which, to put it simply, postulates that a the nature of each language determines and limits the thinking patterns of those who speak it (not the other way round!).  The style of writing some sections stuck out like a sore thumb - way too erudite for this particular student, or for any of my students!  The language used was esoteric and arcane for a 19-year-old. I eventually tracked down the work he had lifted it from and was amused to see it was from no less than one of the works of Sapir himself - and was written by that great academic mind in the 1920s!!  Doh!

Lastly, another student once plagiarized another student's essay word-for-word  - the whole lot. The former student had left the year before.  He made two mistakes.  Firstly, he had "cited" the other student's name in his references (and it was an unusual name, so I remembered the lad).  He even repeated the spelling and grammatical mistakes that I had corrected first time around.   And secondly, I had awarded the essay 36% and marked it as very poor.  It turned out that he had found the essay neatly folded up inside a text book in the library and decided to copy it out rather than write his own. 

I always check out Wikipedia nowadays when setting and marking essays, because so many students see that as a quick way to do their homework, so I do spot quite a lot of sentences and phrases which are straight lifts from Wiki.

I've noticed it's pretty difficult to spot plagiarism with post-grad linguistics students because they have the gumption to reconstruct all the phrases and replace a lot of the common nouns and insert or remove agents so the software doesn't pick it up. I have known entire chapters of a book to be reformulated. So it's down to the academic to know all the possible sources of reference, what they contain and where to locate it.  My response to such plagiarism is to tell them that if they want an MA, they must first learn that the acronym stands for Master of Arts, not Manipulation and Appropriation.

*

            So it’s obvious from the experiences of these four people that plagiarism happens at GCSE level, and is increasing in both undergraduates and postgraduates, but, encouragingly, it is detectable. If it is so easily spotted, why are students risking it? Some, it seems, think it’s acceptable to copy chunks of work. Some just think they won’t be caught out, especially if they change a few words to circumvent the plagiarism software. But my feeling is that it is happening because the way the education system is geared now is failing to give students the correct toolkit to actually write essays for themselves.

            The pressure to cram facts in at GCSE has, as Jo said, meant that few GCSEs require a student to write an essay. So our children at GCSE level know lots of facts but can’t necessarily put them together. Fortunately Tanya is naturally able to write essays, so is finding her A level courses, which demand a lot of essays, easier than many in her class. She is at one of the top schools in the country, so these are our most academically able students, yet at first, they lacked the ability to put one word in front of another to convey what is inside their heads. Writing essays is a skill which requires years of practice. We are asking our children to do 10 or 12 GCSEs when we did 8 O levels, and asking these children to learn and reproduce facts rather than put together coherent arguments at GCSE level. So when a child reaches A level they are lacking this skill, and lacking the confidence in writing things in their own way and in their own words. Tanya’s class had to be shown how to write an essay. This is a skill they should already have had solid foundations in. Instead, we expect a quantum leap in ability from GCSE to A level. These children are our brightest children. They can cope. Not all are so lucky.

No wonder some students are tempted to cheat. But I don’t want my kids to be tempted. Here, then, is my guide for my children on to how to write a half decent essay. I thought I’d share it with you.

Look at the title/question. What does this cover?

Make a list of bullet points you wish to cover. Sometimes it helps to ask questions, which you then go on to answer.

Ensure that these bullet points are in a sensible order.

Use the various sources… textbooks, papers, the internet… to find information on each of these points. Make a note of each reference for your reference list at the end.

Write an introduction where you say what you will be discussing. Head it, “Introduction” if appropriate.

Cover the main body of the discussion. This is often better as headings from your bullet points. Back up your points with a list of references at the end, with the number of the reference(s) in brackets after the point you have made.

If you have understood the subject properly, you will be able to write each section from memory, only having to refer to the notes you have made to check specific detail. That way, you will both learn what you are writing about, and write about it in a smooth and logical way. Your work will be interesting to read.

The Conclusion is where you demonstrate how each of your bullet points/headings/paragraphs fit together into a coherent whole. This is where you show you know what you are talking about.

Use the computer to find the information, lift chunks even, for reference. Draw up your reference list on the computer, but write your essay by hand. There are two reasons for this: One is that you are less tempted to clone. And secondly, you will be writing by hand in the exams. It’s worth practising handwriting.

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Yesterday was unofficially Anti-Plagiarism Day, when a writer friend of mine suggested we all focus on the problem. A recent case cauised a lot of upset. As coppers, used to seeing some really dreadful crimes, it may seem rather trivasil by comparison, but it is theft, and the plagiuarised author does feel violated.

 

Sometimes, interestingly, the plagiariser doesn't think he or she has done anything wrong. My feelings are that this mindset is similar to a paedophile who thinks his interferring with children is normal and desired by the child. Everyone else knows it's wrong but the offender can't understand what the fuss is all about. I'm not trying to trivialise paedophilia, far from it; more trying to show how badly affected some people are by having their work stolen like this.

 

 

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Quite often so called psychics become police psychics as that information fed into the process of what they try and take as reward for brilliance. On one of my cases a so called person suddenly stated he was psychic and that historically what I had found of a location he had drawn a map of. That information went to the client he had found as his visions. Result, he is convinced of his map and so is she.

On another note on ebay there are essays for sale and I have reported this many times. My own dyslexia is a problem but I have passed all by no special means other than the use now of computer. But I have not cheated, the results and understanding are what you are tested on, not oratory skills or a good grammar essay with no understanding. It has to show how you understand it. Another person will apply a differing logic and style to the question.

 

Hence to steal someone else's work as your own is stealing by deception.  How far is that person going to go to do what they want. One such case in point is Sion Jenkins.

He wrote of things he could never have studied as he had no Gordonstown education, no Open University Honours and no qualifications in any of the subjects he taught on, he taught by plagiarism as he had to make the job fit what he knew. That is graphically how using others information to gain advantage is plagiarism academically and vocationally.

He still states he has taken Masters level courses to make reasoned debates. To understand a subject you have to have taken the course and applied it to the subject matter.

 Have I won my case?

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