By Claire Aitchison

It could be easy to think there is a ‘plague’ of cheating and plagiarism in education across all parts of the world implicating all levels of authority and scholarship, including doctoral study.

Putting aside the media thirst for scandal and the fact that some accusations may be politically motivated, stories of plagiarism and cheating in the attainment of PhD qualifications occur remarkably frequently. But how are we to interpret these scandalous stories? How widespread is doctoral plagiarism in reality? And how should we act/react as supervisors who value genuine scholarship, rigour and truthfulness in research and research writing? What are the losses from cheating and plagiarism, and who are the victims?

Plagiarism is a high voltage word – it conflates numerous historical, cultural, linguistic and behavioural properties into one big sin. To be accused of plagiarism in any country or context is a big deal that can carry severe penalties. For individuals personal and professional fallout is inevitable, irrespective of the facts (which may explain why these stories attract so much attention in the volatile world of politics). When plagiarism involves stealing from other doctoral theses, it is abundantly unfair to the original scholar and makes a mockery of their labours. There is also reputational damage to the institution. PhDs attained by unscrupulous means undermine the value of a doctorate for everyone involved in scholarly work and research.

Is it getting worse?

The impetus for this post was threefold: another spate of media accusations of PhD plagiarism by politicians, a discussion with a colleague overseas about institutional capacity building regarding the avoidance of PhD plagiarism, and a presentation of preliminary findings from an Australian study into Contract Cheating.

Reporting on this study Tracey Bretag and Rowena Harper Bretag__Harper_Brekkie_session_17.06.15 suggest incidences of plagiarism and cheating are increasing because of a ‘perfect storm’ of co-occurring influences:

  • Massification, internationalisation, and diversification
  • Digital disruption, changing social norms/values
  • Pressure to perform: metrics, measurement
  • Precarious job markets, casualisation
  • Corruption in wider society
  • Employability focus, learning seen as ‘transaction’

These are precisely the factors we have been identifying as drivers for the changing doctorate and as key pressure points for doctoral writers and researchers.

Clear-cut intentional cheating such as outsourcing the writing of the thesis is widely recognised as unacceptable however, what about smaller incursions and everyday failings such as failing to identify the boundary between what is common knowledge and what might have ownership issues?

Plagiarism that isn’t a headline story

I am certain that most everyday plagiarism occurs out of ignorance or oversight or through sloppy, unscholarly practices where due care is relinquished under pressure. Everyday we work with language; reading, writing and talking about it so that it becomes part of our own thinking. I suspect many a writer would acknowledge that somewhere, somehow they have likely failed to fully or correctly attribute everything they have ever written. It is a kind of low level anxiety we all carry. Small acts of indiscretion, hurried writing and poor practices are part of the human condition of authoring – yet if experienced writers can err despite knowledge of what should be done, then how much harder it is for novice writers? And what of those situations when ignorance plays a role?

The vast majority of doctoral students undertaking the massive challenge of writing a PhD thesis wish to excel as researchers and scholars. Few set out to intentionally cheat. However, in the same way that we don’t expect doctoral students to begin their journey as fully formed writers, we cannot presume a mastery of integrity practices from the get go.

High profile cases of plagiarism and unethical practices in research are major concerns for institutions. Universities are increasingly taking a more proactive role to alert doctoral students of the dangers of plagiarism, but, in my experience, few go further than warning against cheating behaviours. Much responsibility for overseeing the support and development of appropriate practices continues to default to the supervisor. And yet how many of us feel well equipped to ensure our students develop and maintain scholarly practices and attitudes that hedge against inadvertent plagiarism?

It takes time to become adroit at avoiding plagiarism, integrating and citing the work of others into one’s own contribution. Many candidates truly struggle to develop strong scholarly practices that mitigate plagiarism, especially when they come from disciplines that’s aren’t heavily text-based or where individuals have had restricted experiences in higher education research. Or if one has to write an 80,000 – 100,000 word document in a foreign language, the difficulties are further exacerbated.

If supervisors don’t regard writing support as their responsibility and institutions are poorly resourced to provide support, doctoral scholars can be left without guidance and help. In addition, not all students (or supervisors) care equally about the value of words nor the craft of writing; they may instead prioritise other researcher skills such as perfecting lab techniques or mastering mathematical or theoretical concepts. Helping students understand and develop robust and routine practices that develop their scholarship and protect them against accusations of plagiarism is an important part of the job for those of us who work with student writers.

When I did my PhD, anti-plagiarism software was relatively new and it was mostly seen as an undergraduate anti-cheating tool. These days, students and supervisors are well aware of the advantages of incorporating these tools into their routine practices for self checking.

We’d welcome hearing about other approaches to helping students become more aware of and skilled in avoiding plagiarism. Or you may have other reflections on plagiarism and doctoral writing.