Towards a Culture of Dishonesty?

Dr Ciara O’Farrell, Head of Academic Practice at Trinity College, discusses key issues surrounding academic integrity and plagiarism in higher education, and highlights the importance of reaching a shared understanding of both.

Is Andy Warhol’s iconic painting of a Campbell’s soup can satire, or copying? Is Madonna’s ‘Hollywood’ video a creative homage to French photographer Bourdin, or was she striking someone else’s pose? Many years ago, I attended a teaching & learning conference and I distinctly remember a workshop where Perry Share (IT Sligo) discussed these images, unpacking their relationship to popular culture and framing the notion of plagiarism in intertextuality theory. Fresh from my home discipline of English (where T.S. Elliot once noted, ‘immature poets imitate; mature poets steal’) the workshop challenged my pre-conceived perceptions of plagiarism, prompting me to reconsider my attitudes to ghost writing, for example.

In March 2021, Forbes published an article on US giant “Chegg”, currently the most valuable EdTech company in America with stock prices tripling since the pandemic. Indeed, ‘to chegg’ is fast emerging as a verb. Chegg describes its service as ‘connecting college students to test answers on demand.’ Ask an expert a question, the Chegg Study website boasts, and you will have an answer back in ‘as little as 30 minutes.’ However, according to Forbes, who interviewed 52 students who use the Chegg study app, ‘all but 4 admitted they use the site to cheat.’

Cheating is nothing new but there is concern among some academics that the sudden move to open book assessment since Covid-19 may have made it more prevalent. We know from the research that learning achieved through open book assessment is valuable to students and employers alike, and I doubt that many students or academics want to see a lock, stock, and barrel return to the closed book, timed written exams which dominated University assessment until recently. So how can we prevent this?

Of course, students have a responsibility not to cheat but for students transitioning into third level from a world where plagiarism is becoming increasingly normalised, the type of online student ‘training’ many institutions currently have in place only goes so far and is often little more than a tick boxing exercise. Plagiarism policies help but are challenging to implement. Assessors too can mitigate plagiarism, but this necessitates an assessment re-design that requires students to apply their knowledge rather than regurgitate it and to synthesise their ideas with those of others rather than ‘steal’ them. This also requires assessors to shift their perceptions of the purposes of assessment and to view it as something that not only ‘tests’ knowledge but acts as a vehicle for learning.

It is time for third level institutions to hold sincere conversations with students about the ‘why’ of plagiarism and to frame these discussions from historical, ethical, legal, cultural, and pedagogical perspectives. Until we reach a shared understanding with students of what plagiarism is and convince them of the importance of academic integrity, we risk a culture of dishonestly taking hold.