Maintaining the Academic Integrity in Higher Education

Teaching in higher education has many positive sides – confronting students with their plagiarised essays and breach of academic integrity is not one of them.

It is something most educators dread, but at the same time, plagiarism is something the academic community feels strongly about. Most academics find themselves obligated to address instances of plagiarism, which is often discussed using terms heavily laden with moral judgments, such as ‘cheating’ or ‘academic dishonesty’. We even did it ourselves when we headlined this article with words like ‘integrity’, placing the act of plagiarism as the moral opposite of having academic integrity.

Most institutions in higher education operate with some form of ethical code, such as an academic honesty policy or honour code, so students know it is an illicit act that could have some severe consequences to their future academic progress. Yet, plagiarism persists in the academic environment, with news reports of plagiarism in UK higher education on the rise.

So, who are the plagiarisers in higher education? Generally, students who plagiarise can be divided into two groups. Those who do it with intent and those who simply do not know that they are plagiarising.


Cheating with Intent

First, those who plagiarise deliberately, even though they know it is not allowed (and – morally speaking – wrong).

There is a multitude of reasons for intentionally plagiarising an essay or a paper. Some students might feel pressured to do it to earn a higher grade than they assess themselves capable of achieving. Others have perhaps not enough time to finish the work themselves, so they take a ‘shortcut’. Some might be lazy, and some might just not care. And yet another reason is that some students simply have another idea of what does and does not constitute plagiarism. Studies show that some students might have conflicting moral bases between their relationship to fellow students and to their educational institution, which can warp their understanding of academic misconduct.

So, the grounds for acts of plagiarism are many, but whichever of these reasons the students might have, and however different the rationales behind their choices, they all made the conscious decision to cheat. As such, the sanctions in place at the respective educational institution should come into effect.


The Unaware Plagiarisers

But not all plagiarisers commit their act with intent. A large number of students plagiarise unknowingly, as they have simply not grasped the full extent of the formalities of academic writing. A common example is students giving improper citations, either by using a wrong format to clarify that the text in question has another origin, not paraphrasing properly or simply by not citing the source material at all.

Furthermore, some students simply submit plagiarised text by accident. Perhaps they forgot to write that a note was actually a quote during their notetaking, so while writing their essay, they thought they were using their own words. Or they might have changed something during their proofreading but forgotten to change the citations accordingly.

But does intent (or, rather, the lack of) actually matter when it comes to plagiarism? In the end, no. Whether inadvertently or not, the act of submitting work that is not 100% your own words and ideas (unless cited and noted correctly!) and passing it off as your own is plagiarism. The intent can have something to say regarding the final consequences, but whether the act was committed consciously or not can be difficult to prove for the student.


Fostering Awareness of What Constitutes Plagiarism

As an educator, penalising students for plagiarism they were not aware of committing can be a disagreeing experience, but cause must have an effect. What educators can do is try to prevent it. To help unintentional plagiarisers, an increased effort can be done to enhance their vigilance of proper citations and underline the importance of writing in a correct academic form.

One solution is to start of each course with a quick rundown of what constitutes academic cheating in that specific discipline:


  • Define plagiarism sharply, accentuating that plagiarism is not just about copying the language-use of others, but also their ideas.


  • Repeat the way they should provide citations and sources properly, and provide examples for them to consult later on in the course.


  • Issue guidelines on how the students can collaborate appropriately during the course, to prevent a group of students turning in identical papers.


There are other points regarding plagiarism that can be added within each specific subject. And even though this can add to an already busy schedule for educators, the time might be saved at the end of the term in the form of fewer acts of plagiarism to tend to.


Combatting Deliberate Cheaters with a Plagiarism Checker

While precautions to prevent plagiarism might be feasible when it comes to unintentional plagiarisers, students who deliberately cheat in exams are less easily deterred. For this, a reactive measure might be a necessary solution. One such measure is the implementation of digital tools to monitor and bring attention to acts of plagiarism in submitted exams.

Digital plagiarism checkers can make the process of catching plagiarisers quick and easy, as they can quickly compare the submissions to different sources, such as the Internet, published material and previous exams.

While this setup has some prerequisites, chiefly that exams are submitted digitally or at the least in an electronic copy, it can be a serious advantage in weeding out acts of plagiarism in a fast and effective way. And with deadlines being ever tighter during assessment periods, this can be a real benefit to the workflow of assessors in higher education.

To ease the implementation of employing a digital plagiarism checker, it can be a definite advantage to begin as soon – and as widely – as possible. If the students are taught the implications of the educational institution’s plagiarism control from day 1 of their education, it will make them less apt to plagiarise and instead act with more academic integrity. It is much harder to break a habit of academic misconduct at the end of the student’s educational progress, for example, if an educational institution only employs a plagiarism checker when students submit their bachelor’s or master’s theses.


Should Students Have Access to Plagiarism Checkers Before Submission?

With the use of plagiarism checkers, one specific question typically arises: can students benefit from access to a plagiarism checker before handing in?

Many websites would say yes, while in the same breath offering to check students’ submissions either for free or for a fee, citing ‘peace of mind’ and ‘ensuring original and well-cited work’ as reasons to use their service. When students turn in their papers, it is an easy way to decrease the odds of being detected by plagiarism detectors employed by universities and accused of plagiarism.

As a SaaS-company (Software-as-a-Service), UNIwise definitely has a goal of improving and easing functions and processes in higher education through technology, but once in a while, the easy way might not be the right way.

If students use online plagiarism checkers or are given access to plagiarism checkers through their educational institution, they can end up using this software as a crutch instead of a tool. Students might rely on plagiarism detection software to catch their mistakes – or attempts to plagiarise – rather than focus on producing original work with a thorough understanding of the formalities and style of academic writing. In the end, students might end up working harder to avoid detection by a plagiarism checker than on the actual substance of the paper they are checking. If an educational institution wishes to create an educational environment that fosters academic integrity, providing access to plagiarism checkers prior to submission can be a step in the wrong direction.

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