Growing problems

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(mis-) Use of statistical data is growing problem

The headline actually reads Plagiarism is growing problem, teachers believe.

And it’s the first line of the story which really grabs the attention:

NINE out of 10 teachers believe their pupils copy, a survey has found.

Isn’t that depressing, masses of suspicion? Nine teachers out of ten mistrust their students?

A few lines on, the claim is repeated, with a further alarming note:

More than 92% of teachers said they think their students plagiarise, and almost a third believe it is on the increase.

Mind you, that means two-thirds of teachers think the rate of plagiarism is holding steady or is decreasing. Which might belie the headline?  Am I grasping at straws?

We aren’t told, but if, two years ago, half of all teachers thought that plagiarism was a growing problem, and now only one-third of teachers think it is a growing problem, we might wonder, “Is the problem growing – or not?”

On the other hand, of course, if, two years ago, one-quarter of all teachers thought that plagiarism was a growing problem, and now one-third of teachers think it is a growing problem, then the perceptions are that the problem is growing.

So, is the problem growing or not?

Once we get into such conundrums, we might begin to wonder what is meant by “92% of teachers.” Which teachers? World-wide? USA? UK? England and Wales? How large was the sample surveyed? How representative of teachers? How was the sample determined, how were the surveyed teachers recruited?

More questions arise as we read more of the story.

Gill Rowell, Academic Advisor for PlagiarismAdvice, is quoted as saying:

“The move from secondary and further education to university is a big transition for students. Educating them about plagiarism and referencing is a key element of preparation for their future academic careers – and teachers obviously recognise this.”

Indeed they do, and are taking action.

When asked what methods they used to approach the issue of plagiarism with their pupils, they cited games, quizzes, presentations, workshops and discussion of high-profile cases which have featured in the media.

But … there is contradiction here. Something is being done to tackle the problem. But if so, then something isn’t working.

Or is it the survey which isn’t working?

Maybe. The section which really caught my eye was the statement

Many believed that it was accidental, with one teacher saying: “There is a dramatic difference between deliberate plagiarism and inadvertent plagiarism. Very few of my students deliberately plagiarise, the vast majority do so inadvertently through a lack of developed academic skills.”

This echoes a survey carried out by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) survey in which one respondent was quoted as saying “I think the majority of students who engage in plagiarism do it more out of ignorance that the desire to cheat, they really want to succeed on their own merit,” and “only” 37.2% of respondents answered “Yes” to the question: “Do you think students have sufficient understanding of what counts as legitimate research and what counts as plagiarism?”


I have used these statements in my workshops, with less and less conviction. They feel dated when participants see that the survey was published in January 2008. I am pleased to find that the perception still holds, teachers do think that most students do not mean to plagiarise, it seems that they don’t really understand.

This section of the press release was what convinced me I needed more information. I wrote to the contact address provided in the PlagiarismAdvice article.

I was very kindly sent a copy of the survey responses, anonymised. The first few pages were not included, so I have not seen the cover-sheet, have no idea who responded. We do not need to know who responded, that is not a problem.

There were 128 respondents.  Although we do not need to know who responded, it might be good to know how many teachers were approached, so that we might gauge how many chose not to respond. There is always the possibility that those who had nothing to say did not say it, and that can skew results.

And only 128 respondents (who might or might not have been self-selected and therefore unrepresentative of the teaching profession at large). You might think that it’s a small number on which to build shock-horror headlines. I have to confess, I do.

We aren’t told how many schools were represented by the 128 respondents, so any and all of the responses may be duplicate responses, two or ten or more responses from the same school, each reporting the same observation. Another possible skew is introduced. We just don’t know.

But these niggles aside, some of the questions were … interesting?

That 92%, for instance, results from the question:

Do you believe your pupils plagiarise?

92.2% of respondents said “Yes”
5.5% said “No”
3.1% said “Don’t know”

The very next question asked:

If yes, what proportion of your students do you believe plagiarise?

41.4% said “a very small minority”
18.8% said “a significant number”
7.0% said “All my students plagiarise from time to time.”

More depression; 7% of teachers believe that ALL their students plagiarise. It may not be every time they submit an assignment, that’s good news, and it’s a long way short of that oft-quoted statement “Recent studies indicate that approximately 30 percent of all students may be plagiarizing on every written assignment they complete.”  (For the background to this oft-quoted but totally erroneous statement, see the post Thirty percent.)

It might even lighten that introductory statement

NINE out of 10 teachers believe their pupils copy, a survey has found.

Oh yes, did you notice? The percentages don’t add up, do they? Here it comes. Same question, the response in full:

If yes, what proportion of your students do you believe plagiarise?

41.4% said “a very small minority”
18.8% said “a significant number”
7.0% said “All my students plagiarise from time to time.”
32.8% said “an increasing number of students.”

That is the source of the statement

… and almost a third believe it is on the increase.

In the context of the question “what proportion of your students do you believe plagiarise?” that 32.8% is not really helpful, either. Is the “increasing number of students” increasing from a low base of very very few, or is it based on almost all students?

You can’t help wondering what the responses would have been if there had been two separate questions:

If yes, what proportion of your students do you believe plagiarise?

If yes, do you believe that the rate of plagiarism is increasing, decreasing, or about the same as (say) two years ago?

Also worth noting later on: 72.7% of respondents answered “Yes” to the question:

Are you confident you could identify plagiarism in your students’ work?

No comment.

It seems that 52.9% of respondents work in schools (or other institutions) which use plagiarism detection software (actually 50% because 7 teachers chose not to respond to this question, so only 64 of 128 said “Yes”).

And 96.7% are “in favour of the use of plagiarism detection software” (actually 91.4% because again 7 teachers, possibly the same teachers, did not respond).

It might have been one of these 7 who stated

There’s no such thing as plagiarism detection software. We use text comparison software. I presume that’s what you meant? This is a really poorly designed survey.

No comment.

There were 113 responses to an open-ended question on how respondents “engaged … students in discussion about plagiarism and referencing.”  Perhaps as many as 13 respondents suggested that they use Turnitin in formative fashion, using the reports to help students understand why and where they went wrong (assuming they did go wrong?).

Several replied to the effect that students are shown what Turnitin can do and made aware of the punishment/s for plagiarism.

One respondent said

They are told firmly that plagiarism is NOT allowed and that if suspected they will get a zero or be asked to do their work again from the start.

This respondent does not say, but we can hope that consequences follow if (and only if) plagiarism is proven rather than just “suspected”?

What is very clear from the 113 responses is that many teachers really are making great efforts to make sure – to try to make sure – that students understand what plagiarism is. Many are making effort to make sure that students learn how to write right.

Several said, or intimated, that students are shown or taught what to do at the start of the programme but with no mention of opportunities to practise or any other kind of follow-up. Oh dear.

Overall, I’m not sure what to make of this survey. I have been privileged to see the results, and for that I thank iParadigms and PlagiarismAdvice. But I do think the PlagiarismAdvice news item is misleading and inconclusive.

More and more I realise how important it is to go to the source, especially when statistics are involved. I realise more and more how selective a secondary report can be. (Possibly including this one.)

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