Tarnish… it spreads

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Tarnish … it spreads

An article published on the BBC website yesterday, Derby teacher banned over coursework plagiarism, reports an unusual situation, one which raises many questions.

Gavin Bevis reports on a teacher who has been banned from teaching for at least 7 years. It seems that in 2019 the teacher had inserted passages into two students’ coursework after they had submitted their work to the teacher and before she submitted it for assessment.   The passages had been taken from a student’s work submitted the year before, 2018, with just a few changes made.   The work was flagged as suspicious and investigation confirmed plagiarism.

Bevis’s report does not say what triggered the flagging, whether it was flagged by text-matching software such as Turnitin or similar tool or simply that the examiner/s reading the work felt that something in the writing did not ring true; perhaps it just rang bells (or perhaps it was a different cause of concern altogether). Whatever the trigger, investigation took place. The OCR examination board followed up with the school, the school followed up with the students.

The students claimed that they were not responsible for the changes, one of them saying that they had not completed that section of the exam and the other saying they had written about a different case-study.  So the school investigated more deeply and discovered that the teacher had printed out the earlier student’s work shortly before sending off the 2019 students’ coursework.

It is not often that we hear about teacher misconduct so we do not know how widespread it is – but then, although we often hear about student academic misconduct, we do not know how widespread it is. We hear only about the ones who get caught, some of the ones who get caught.

As so often, plagiarism specialist Jonathan Bailey was quick to spot and comment on the report. Under the headline UK Teacher Banned After Plagiarizing on Behalf of Students on his Plagiarism Today site, Bailey makes many pertinent points, raises many serious questions.

He suggests, for instance, that the teacher’s action could have damaged the two students’ reputations and prospects had the school not persevered and discovered evidence incriminating the teacher.  I wonder how many other schools would have been so determined, investigating further when students claim innocence, as that is what guilty students often do, maintain that they are innocent?

Bailey raises two big questions. One is why it took the Teaching Regulation Agency so long to come to its decision; although the teacher was suspended early in this saga, the lack of conclusion would have been a concern for the school, the students and the teacher herself.

Bailey’s second question is to ask if the school has investigated the teacher’s earlier history; she had been at the school for 12 years and it is legitimate to ask, had she done this before, how many times, how many years?

I would ask further questions: why these two students? were there other students in the 2019 cohort whom she had “helped”?  were and are there other teachers in the school who “help” their students, in these or in other unethical ways, is this in the school culture? can we trust the school’s examinations’ record? can we trust the validity of the coursework scores of students taught by this teacher, in this or in previous schools? Suspicion may not be warranted or deserved but it spreads.

As Bailey suggests:

To prevent future cases of academic integrity from slipping through the cracks, you can’t just study the cases you catch, you have to look at the ones you miss.

If you do not mind the leap, AI detectors are very much in the news just recently, some apparently better at discerning GenAI content than others and none perfect.  The concern seems true of them as well (and also of text-matching software, the so-called plagiarism detectors).  It is not just the ones they catch that demonstrate efficiency and reliability, it is the ones the miss, and there is no way to estimate those. But that is another story, for another day.

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