Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440 - 459)



  Q440  Dr Iddon: Let us choose Alasdair and Ed and we will start with Ed. Do you believe that in your university plagiarism is a problem or not?

  Mr Steward: I believe it is a problem in that it exists.

  Q441  Dr Iddon: When you went to the university were you given any advice on plagiarism?

  Mr Steward: Yes, as soon as you turn up you have huge amounts of guidance on plagiarism. In every single book that you are given there is guidance on plagiarism, it is given out on separate sheets, it is sent out before you even arrive at university, it is on the website, it is absolutely everywhere because it is so crucial that you understand plagiarism in order not to commit it. I sit on some disciplinaries for students who have been accused of plagiarism and the two types of students that I see are those that panic and have not done the work, and plagiarise in order just to submit the work on time, and those who genuinely do not understand that they have plagiarised. It can be as simple as referencing, not putting things in quotation marks; that counts as plagiarism, so the university is keen to ensure that every student fully understands every aspect of plagiarism.

  Q442  Dr Iddon: Where does the plagiarism exhibit itself the most, is it in essays, is it in modular coursework, is it in the laboratory notebook? We used to give compounds out for analysis in our chemical laboratories and if we detected a student was coming with a perfect result we handed polo mints out, and if the next result came perfect as well we had obviously detected that they were fobbing their results from somebody else. Where do you see it occurring in your university?

  Mr Steward: From my experience it is coursework.

  Q443  Dr Iddon: Coursework. Let me turn to Alasdair next—there were three questions there, if you can remember them.

  Mr Farquharson: I can vaguely, yes. Plagiarism is a problem—we have noticed this being a problem particularly in subjects where there is a lot of reading, and law lends itself to that of course; it tends to be a problem because of the sheer volume of material that people have to cover. Part of the problem—and it is mainly amongst the younger students—is because of their levels of English language ability which are pretty poor today, people speak in a different way. I speak to a lot of the younger students and sometimes I struggle to understand what it is they are talking about when they start to use colloquialisms. I am not talking about a Wolverhampton accent, I am talking about this LA gang-style of speech that a lot of people use these days. That makes it difficult for these students, therefore, when they are producing a piece of written work and submitting it to their tutors, to avoid plagiarism and what they tend to do of course is just copy and paste copious amounts of material from the internet and then submit that as if it is their own work, so it is a problem. It is also a problem with some postgraduate students with regards to the fact that a lot of the postgraduate studies, certainly in law, are of an open book examination format. The coursework tends to involve students working together if you are doing a professional course for example, as if you were in an actual office, and in that instance, where people start to work as a team, then you might have one member doing all the work and the others just copying up from that member of the team.

  Q444  Dr Iddon: Do you think we can ever stop plagiarism?

  Mr Farquharson: For postgraduate students you could probably put an end to it by having more closed book examinations, that would go a long way towards it, and not having so much emphasis on teaching people how to work together. Certainly as a postgraduate student you should know by then how to work together and if you have worked outside of university in a company or in any sort of environment you ought to know how to co-operate with other people, it should not be something that should be taught at that level at university, it should be something that people pick up at secondary modern school or grammar school.

  Q445  Chairman: Ricky, you have been dying to come in.

  Mr Chotai: In Salford we have seen an increasing trend in plagiarism, it is sad to say, with international students and where the students union has picked that up from is that the university is using agencies to recruit students from abroad and they are just not explaining about plagiarism. We have had some really shocking cases of a lot of students in a single class plagiarising and being simply unaware of it. It is in the coursework area and we are seeing an increase in general in international students, less so from the home students nowadays.

  Q446  Dr Harris: From the people we have spoken to previously, students in particular, there has been a mixed picture of how much awareness there is. Your comments just now, Ed, were at the extreme end of how much students are told, you said you are getting it drummed into you on the very first day and in every course, whereas others have said they are personally aware of it of course and they never plagiarise but it is not something that is very high level. I just wanted to ask each of the others briefly which end of the spectrum your own experience is on. Can we work along from Anand?

  Mr Raja: At the risk of sounding a bit avant garde I would say that I do not take the way plagiarism is dealt with very seriously because the reason why plagiarism is nauseating is because it indicates that a particular person is unable to think originally, he is not able to make sense of the words—

  Q447  Dr Harris: I understand why it is bad but I asked you a specific question. You are answering another question which is you do not think it is taken seriously enough, is that what you were going to say?

  Mr Raja: I just wanted to point out that the way people deal with plagiarism now is that they have computer software and they detect if somebody has copied or not, but once that detection has happened what people do is that they start plagiarising with talent so they change the sentence structure.

  Q448  Dr Harris: They get round that, I understand.

  Mr Raja: They get around it, so I do not think it really solves the originality problem.

  Q449  Dr Harris: You say enforcement is not effective. Can you just deal with my question: you personally have an interest in this but when you first arrived was your experience the same as Ed's, that you got it drummed into you on the first day, was this something you picked up or was it something that was hardly mentioned to students, what was your personal experience?

  Mr Raja: It was mentioned. In our few introductory lectures we were told how to not plagiarise which means how to plagiarise but plagiarise with talent.

  Q450  Dr Harris: Right. Gemma.

  Ms Jerome: Absolutely, I think it is impossible to not be aware. Personally it is something that you are made aware of as a first year undergraduate—that is the only experience I have got—and you have to put a signature to forms and every time you submit a hard copy document part of that submission is that you sign to declare there is no plagiarism. The software exists as well.

  Mr Farquharson: At the University of Wolverhampton they take it very seriously. There is an induction when you first enter the university and in every year this subject is brought up by the academic staff and it is made very clear to all students that plagiarism will not be tolerated, plus of course there is plenty of information from the students union, so there is no excuse really.

  Q451  Dr Harris: I know there is no excuse; I asked a simple question and I need to move on. Carrie, can you just briefly answer the question I asked?

  Ms Donaghy: I do a law degree and Alasdair said earlier that there would be quite high plagiarism within law degrees. I totally disagree; I would never plagiarise and I do not know how you could get away with it. At my university there would just be no way.

  Q452  Dr Harris: Because of the software.

  Ms Donaghy: Because of the software, because of the experience of the staff, they would know a plagiarised piece of work.

  Mr Chotai: Resources are made available to make sure you do not plagiarise. I do not think enough emphasis is put on the structure, do we use the Harvard system, and then some academics are also somewhat lax—as long as you are putting references down and as long as it is not the strict system—other academics are very strict as in you must use a specific system.

  Q453  Dr Harris: I understand that.

  Mr Chotai: In Salford that varies across.

  Q454  Dr Harris: Did any of you have any of this at what the Americans call high school and Alasdair quaintly calls secondary moderns and grammars but others might call comprehensives? At secondary school did any of you have any of this drummed into you?

  Mr Farquharson: Yes.

  Mr Chotai: I attended a grammar school and no, not very much.

  Q455  Dr Harris: Carrie?

  Ms Donaghy: No.

  Mr Farquharson: We were told not to cheat. Obviously you are not doing the same sort of level of work that you do at university but—

  Q456  Dr Harris: I understand that, everyone is told not to copy and cheat.

  Ms Jerome: I was not even aware of the concept of plagiarism until university.

  Q457  Dr Harris: Was it a shock to any of you to get this message, to quote Ed, drummed into you from the very first day and then at every course when it had not been mentioned when you were sitting public exams at high school, at secondary school?

  Mr Chotai: It is very daunting; there is the prospect of being thrown out of university because you have plagiarised, especially if you just make an error in the way you write down your references. It scares a lot of students and there needs to be more given before the university system about how important it is not to plagiarise.

  Q458  Dr Harris: Do any of you agree with Anand—this is my last question on this—that it is possible to get round some of the policing, or feel you can get away with it, by paraphrasing stuff that you are cutting and pasting, if I can put it in those terms? Do any of you disagree with that?

  Mr Farquharson: Can I just correct one comment that Carrie said? I did not say earlier that students studying law were more likely to be involved in plagiarism than any other students, but obviously because of the volume of work that is involved we have found, certainly at Wolverhampton, that across the university overall law students tend to be involved in this to a higher degree than some of the other schools because of the sheer volume of bookwork that they have to do. If your English is not up to scratch then in a last minute panic the temptation to plagiarise is pretty high.

  Dr Harris: It is not a shock in this place that lawyers break the law.

  Q459  Chairman: In the nine minutes that we have got left can I return to this issue of quality of teaching because it is absolutely central to the whole issue of the student experience. We were in Washington last week and we were looking at the way in which the university system is very much categorised into research intensive universities through to teaching-only universities. I wonder if I could start with you, Ed, because you have been right through the whole process. We posed the question to you some time ago as to whether it was essential for a good teaching experience for your teachers, your academics, to be involved in research. Do you feel that that still is the case or does it not really matter provided that the teaching is of a high quality?

  Mr Steward: Coming from UCL which is heavily research-intensive I would say, yes, and that is based on my experiences where my friends who did science subjects, a lot of the teaching actively engaged them in the research so their final year dissertations were on the research that their lecturer or teacher was doing, so they were actually engaged in discovering new approaches to science and new ideas—new sciences within that. My background is an arts background and, yes, because my lecturers and teachers were the lecturers and researchers who were at the top of their field the information we were given, the things that we were taught were at the cutting edge, they were the brand new, this has just been discovered a week ago, looking at sources in books that had not been published, that sort of thing.

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