Peer pressure to beat plagiarism?

Student plagiarism and downright cheating cause problems in campuses all over the world and there’s much hand-wringing about what to do about it. There’s a limit to what can be achieved through education, policing and anti-plagiarism software.

Given the lack of consensus on effective solutions, some research shedding light on this contentious area is very welcome. Times Higher this week reports on research by two Australian academics, Rebecca Awdry and Rick Sarre, who surveyed students and staff at an anonymous UK higher education institution. They have uncovered a mismatch between, on the one hand, the stated reasons given by students for not cheating and, on the other, the measures which staff thought would be effective. Students overwhelmingly cited ethical considerations for not cheating, rather than fear of punishment. Staff, however, were convinced that the best way of preventing plagiarism was to improve detection rates and impose harsher penalties.

The authors of the report have made some interesting suggestions based on these findings. One was an anonymous “wall of shame” highlighting “convictions” for plagiarism. Another was to harness peer pressure by having students involved on disciplinary panels.

The first suggestion is similar to one I made at one institution where I worked (regretfully, it was never implemented). My proposal was to have posters in the exam rooms based on the signs you sometimes get on dangerous roads. Instead of “10 deaths and 65 collisions here in the last 5 years”, they could read “10 students have a misconduct penalty marked on their transcript after cheating in last year’s exam” or “5 students reported to the Solicitors Regulation Authority for cheating…” etc.

I’ve always suspected that a concrete message showing that some students have had their careers blighted could be a powerful deterrent. Students know that cheating is unethical, but it’s easy to be tempted to do something unethical if you think no one will ever know.

Ms Awdry’s “wall of shame” (and my posters) are intended to be anonymous, but isn’t an anonymous wall of shame somewhat oxymoronic? It’s taken for granted that the outcomes of disciplinary panels are highly confidential, but if they were publicised that would certainly be a major deterrent. Although this approach has a certain attraction, personally I think it would be too punitive: the range of existing punishments is harsh enough.

Which brings me to the second proposal: having students on disciplinary panels. I can see major benefits in this. In my experience, the vast majority of students are usually outraged by hearing about cases of cheating. In fact, students will often report their colleagues because they feel (quite rightly) that they are the victim of this “crime” and that the prevalence of unfair practices undermines the value of their degree. Although the general student body would still not find out the details of any cases, the involvement of students on the panels would be known and the fact that they are taking place and the penalties imposed would soon circulate.  And the shame of behaviour being exposed in front of one’s peers would be enough to deter some potential infringers.

I suspect the biggest problem faced by disciplinary panels would then be to rein in the students, who would probably turn out to have much more punitive “hang ‘em and flog ‘em” attitudes than the staff.

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