What teachers and students think about plagiarism

Commissioned for publication in Plagiary, for 2009 or 2010. However, the journal seems to have gone defunct before publication.

Brian Martin


Plagiarism, the Internet and Student Learning: Improving Academic Integrity

By Wendy Sutherland-Smith

Routledge, 2008: 234 pages

Many teachers feel passionately about plagiarism. Some think students are treating them with contempt by trying to cheat. Others despair of how easy it is to copy text from the Internet.

It's easy to imagine that colleagues feel the same as you do - and to assume students know what they're doing. Wendy Sutherland-Smith challenges such views. At an Australian university, she surveyed hundreds of students and interviewed dozens of them, and also interviewed numerous academics. The message is loud and clear: there are different attitudes concerning plagiarism among academics and among students, as well as systematic differences between academics and students.

Interview material is the highlight of Sutherland-Smith's book. Using extensive quotes as well as summarising themes, she demonstrates a disjunction between academics and students. Academics usually think plagiarism is a very serious matter, with many of them believing it's almost invariably cheating. Others, though, see it more as a matter of helping students to understand conventions for referencing; for them, the focus is on learning rather than penalties. Sutherland-Smith's discussion of unintentional plagiarism is highly informative.

Also illuminating are comments from students, who have well-developed ideas about what is cheating and what isn't. Most students believe buying an essay from an Internet site is cheating, but lightly paraphrasing text, while giving citations, is not, even though teachers might classify this as plagiarism. Overall, Sutherland-Smith reports, students don't think plagiarism is such a big deal as do academics.

Plagiarism, the Internet and Student Learning contains much more than interviews. It has an ambitious scope: to put student plagiarism in a broad context. There are chapters on the history of plagiarism, on the Internet and plagiarism, and on the global dimensions of plagiarism, all with extensive referencing. The book is an excellent place to begin a study of the literature on student plagiarism. There are good treatments of cross-cultural issues, institutional responses to plagiarism, and text-matching software such as Turnitin.

The wide scope of this analysis is valuable for perspective. For example, Sutherland-Smith addresses the history of the concept of plagiarism through the rise of copyright in England. This nicely makes the point that the idea of authorship - especially the so-called Romantic notion that authors create works out of their own brow - is the product of particular social and economic conditions, rather than inherent in the fact of authorship.

However, copyright issues are mainly of concern to writers and publishers and are seldom raised in the student context that is the focus of the book. Sutherland-Smith might in future tackle a slightly different history: the history of student plagiarism.

Another perspective covered in the book is the constructivist analysis of authorship, namely the view that authors are never independent of their culture but rather construct their works using words, ideas and ways of thought around them. In other words, the author is not an autonomous agent but rather part of a wider cultural apparatus. Sutherland-Smith nicely presents this perspective drawing on work by Roland Barthes and others. I would have liked to see the implications of this perspective for plagiarism developed further. Would Barthes, for example, have been happy for someone else to put their name to a book he had written? How exactly does the constructivist perspective impinge on discussions of student plagiarism? Few of the academics or students interviewed seemed to draw on this constructivist orientation. What does this imply?

Universities set up formal procedures for dealing with plagiarism allegations. Sutherland-Smith presents some eloquent statements from teachers who have reported plagiarism and are disgusted when students receive little or no penalty - a complaint I have heard from my own colleagues. This points to another area for further development: what happens on campuses with zero-tolerance policies? Sutherland-Smith ably surveys policies at representative institutions but does not delve into how these policies are enforced, no doubt because the evidence is simply not available. The policy-practice link - and possible discrepancies between policy and practice - would be worth exploring further. Sutherland-Smith's approach would be ideal: interviews with teachers, students and administrators who have been through the process of handling formal plagiarism allegations.

To my mind, Sutherland-Smith's most striking finding is that teachers who use a transmissive model of education - for example presenting masses of information through lectures - are more likely to adopt a punitive attitude towards plagiarism, yet their teaching practice actually encourages the rote learning and copying approach they nominally decry. Sutherland-Smith clearly prefers a different model, a transformative approach in which students are active participants, for example helping lead the learning process.

The transmissive-versus-transformative distinction recurs throughout Plagiarism, the Internet and Student Learning, and could be used to structure even more of the analysis. For example, the Romantic view of authorship could be linked to a transmissive picture of communication, from a noble author to a passive reader. A transformative approach to teaching could be extended to a parallel transformative approach to developing policies on academic integrity. By highlighting the link between teaching approaches and plagiarism, Sutherland-Smith has opened up an area with the potential to challenge teachers and plagiarism researchers alike.

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong.

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