If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…

[subscribe2]I see that the International Baccalaureate is running a competition for student films promoting academic honesty, using the tag line ‘Be a content creator, not a content imitator’.  The decline in academic honesty is universally regarded as one of the major problems that we face in education, to the extent that it probably belongs in the Monty Python ‘Three Yorkshiremen’ sketch:

1st Yorkshireman: ‘In my day we were beaten if we copied answers from an encyclopaedia!’

2nd Yorkshireman: ‘A beating would have been luxury to us; when I was at school we were expelled if we copied the teacher’s notes off the blackboard!’

3rd Yorkshireman: ’We used to dream of being expelled; we had our hands cut off if we made a neat copy of our own work!

Rarely, if ever, do we question the assumption that using the product of someone else’s thinking is bad, despite clear indications that it is regarded as a natural thing to do by students who have grown up with cut-and-paste word processing, internet downloading and music file-sharing.

A survey by the Duke University Centre for Academic Integrity found that 70% of High School students acknowledged cheating at least once within the previous year.  Over 30% admitted to regularly using the internet to plagiarise material for an assignment.   There are literally thousands of websites offering ‘help’ with essay assignments, including the purchase of complete essays on any title under the sun.  To combat this, many schools use a commercial service called ‘Turnitin’ that matches student work against a database of over 22 million essays and texts from around the world, searching for indications of copying.  However, students in Virginia were recently successfully in preventing their school from introducing the Turnitin service.  They argued that it was an infringement of their rights and the presumption of innocence if their work was checked for cheating..

Our concept of plagiarism (along with many other features of our education system) is rooted in the medieval university, where a scholar’s livelihood depended upon jealously protecting his (never her) work from theft by colleagues and competitors.  For those engaged in original research, for whom the potential financial or reputational rewards may be significant, this concept is as valid today as ever.  However, I wonder whether it really applies in the field of education.  It does not sit well with our emphasis on the value of collaboration as opposed to competition, nor does it fit with the shift from the memorisation of large bodies of knowledge to the mastery of skills of research, scanning and synthesis.  Of course, we have successfully devised rules for the proper attribution of sources, but these are patently artificial and hard to enforce, hence the need for services such as Turnitin.

Students are not blind to the extent to which adults use the work of others without attribution.  How many teachers go online for teaching ideas, but do not add a footnote to their presentations citing the source?  How many executives fail to meticulously cite every source of their ideas?  It is ironic that it is the IB that is leading a crusade for academic honesty, given that the Director General himself fell foul of the standards of academic honesty of the Chatauqua Institution in New York State when he ‘drew heavily upon and quoted extensively from a speech given earlier in the year [and] neglected to cite his source or reveal the quotations for what they were.(Public statement given by Chatauqua Institution spokesperson, August 6th, 2010).

To make matters worse, the IB was later found to have ‘plagiarised large chunks of its marking guides from Wikipedia’ (Times Educational Supplement, October 8th, 2010).  If the IB has difficulty meeting its own standards of academic honesty, what chance do its students stand?

It cannot be seriously argued that young people are less ethical or moral than they used to be.  Instead, the problem may be that different generations do not share the same definition of what is ethical.  From a student’s perspective, it may be ethical to make use of publicly and freely available information in answering a question, but unethical to contribute to the destruction of the environment by driving an unnecessarily large car.

The fundamentals of ethical behaviour, of course, do not change, and it is notable that there is a great deal of commonality between different cultures on the principles, as opposed to the details, of what constitutes ‘good’ behaviour.  Unfortunately, it tends to be the details that are most evident, not the underlying principles, and details do vary, not only from culture to culture but over time.   Plagiarism is a good example of such an ethical technicality;  if this is as widespread as is reported, are we in fact setting the wrong sort of assignments?  Many of our assignments would be easily recognised by an earlier generation of students, and do not reflect the changing reality of the highly connected world that our students inhabit.

Perhaps we need to focus on what it is we want to achieve with an assignment.  If we want to assess a student’s understanding, let that student do all the research they want at home  and then assign a manageable in-class essay, or an in-class preparation of an oral presentation, ideally with unlimited time (within reason) asking for a synthesis of the ideas.  If the topic is well chosen and the specifics are not known beforehand, then it should be possible to distinguish between the sources of information and the student’s mastery of those sources.  On the other hand, if the intent is to challenge the ability of a group to analyse and solve a problem, does it matter where the ideas come from?

There are not any easy answers (oh, what a surprise), and I would love to hear from readers about their creative, original, derivative or borrowed  ideas.

Plagiarism presupposes that a ‘right’ answer exists, and that the answer is more important than the process of achieving it (hence the value in stealing someone else’s answer).  If, however, we are serious in our claimed emphasis on process in education, should it not be the quality of process that we observe and assess, regardless of answer?

Breaking the rules governing use of unoriginal materials is clearly wrong, but if those rules are seen as artificial then we run the risk that they will be regarded as technicalities rather than as matters of principle, to be broken when convenient  (much as adults regard speed limits).  Perhaps we should redraft the rules to better reflect the type of world we are trying to promote, in which knowledge is shared and effort is collaborative, and the ethical test relates to whether the outcome is beneficial to society.  Isaac Newton is quoted as saying that ‘If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants’, and one of my own teachers was fond of proclaiming that very few people were ever fortunate enough to have as many as two truly original, creative ideas in their lives.  Perhaps the IB should recognise that being a content imitator is a necessary part of being a content creator.