Since, as elsewhere, many Mozambican university students plagiarize, sometimes extensively, how can educational institutions train and motivate them to produce academically correct original research and literature reviews and, thereby, acquire proper ethics, technical proficiency and more profound knowledge, all of great use later for professional achievement and national development? A good strategy requires understanding why and how students plagiarize and how the technical and socio-economic environment can facilitate or discourage academic fraud.
Though the present study did not ask student authors about their motives and circumstances, extensive research with fairly consistent findings from numerous countries recommends complementary measures to inspire learning and encourage correct practices.
Motives and environmental influences
Some students plagiarize for ignorance of professional ethics and proper citation techniques; others, to compensate for lack of good research and writing skills; and yet others, due to time pressures.
Though learning to write well and reference sources should begin in junior high or high school, many university students lack these skills. “Ineffective study skills [are also] associated with substandard academic performance, lack of academic integration, and the tendency to plagiarise” (Bennett 2005, p. 154). Poorly copied notes can also cause inadvertent plagiarism (Pecorari 2013: Ch. 1, KL642). Moreover, even students with these skills can succumb to the temptation of good grades with little effort, especially if detection is rare and punishment, slight or non-existent (Roig 1997, p. 121). Indeed, upon detecting academic fraud, teachers often ignore prescribed disciplinary procedures (Jendrek 1989, p. 402–3).
A student’s decision to commit academic fraud, including plagiarism, is greatly influenced by approval or disapproval by peers and observation of their good or bad behaviour. Consequently, the failure to detect it and re-educate or discipline perpetrators nurtures a lax, tolerant ambience tempting additional students to choose the easy, low-learning route to a degree. For example, in one study, “the social multiplier for academic cheating is approximately three if a complete expansion of new cheaters begetting other new cheaters were to occur” (Carrell et al. 2008, p. 175). However, among 1,159 students surveyed in nine undergraduate universities in the UK, peer disapproval (−0.062) and fraternity/sorority membership (0.070) were correlated much more strongly with cheating than peer behaviour (0.029) (McCabe & Treviño 1997, p. 389). Similarly, among 73,738 students at US universities and 1,543 in Lebanon,
the perception of the behaviour of one’s peers with regard to academic integrity showed a very strong relationship with a student’s individual decision on whether to engage in academic integrity—reinforcing, in our minds, the importance of community (peer pressure) in promoting student integrity and reducing academic dishonesty (McCabe et al. 2012: KL1039).
These findings support Bowers’ (1964, p. 196) earlier study of more than 5,000 students at 99 private and state universities in the US, which identified peer disapproval as “the most important determinant of changes in cheating behaviour between high school and college.” In another survey involving 474 students, general embarrassment was 2.47 times more influential than friends’ disapproval (a narrow concept) (Diekhoff et al. 1996, p. 499–500).
Given the influence of peer behaviour and disapproval, it is not surprising that, among 6,000 students surveyed at 31 universities, 66% of those “at non-[honour]-code schools reported one or more transgressions on written work compared to 42% of … [those] at code schools” (McCabe & Treviño, 1996). Yet more dramatically, Brigham Young University introduced an honour code among 299 undergraduate sociology students and, within five years, cut cheating by 63% (Canning 1956, p. 292).
To understand why honour codes reduce cheating, Miller et al. (2014, p. 169) surveyed 1,086 graduate and undergraduate students and found that those
who said they would not cheat because of punitive consequences were more likely to report that they cheated in classes and took less responsibility for promoting academic integrity [whereas] … students whose reasons related to the value of learning, personal character, and/or it being simply not right reported less cheating and took more responsibility for academic integrity.
Further confirming the importance of the external environment and an individual’s respect for professional ethics, another survey of 500 students at 28 universities found that “academic dishonesty was significantly correlated with: (1) the understanding/acceptance of academic integrity policies…; (2) the perceived certainty of being reported …; (3) the perceived severity of penalties …; and (4) the perceptions of peers’ behavior” (McCabe & Treviño 1993, p. 53).
Responding to the need to create an ambience where ethical behaviour is embraced, promoted and adjudicated by the student body itself, some universities have adopted academic honour codes in order to create a proud ethical community with strong disapproval of fraudulent behaviour, as Ashesi University (s.d., p. 1) in Ghana accomplished under its “mission to educate a new generation of ethical leaders in Africa”. An honour-code system is, however, hard to implement at large universities with many working and part-time students living in dispersed neighbourhoods. Nevertheless, though small honour-code universities achieve the best results, large universities significantly reduce academic fraud by adopting modified honour codes—a midway result strongly suggesting the impact of peer-group pressure favouring honest learning (McCabe & Pavela 2000, p. 34).
Preventive measures: to teach, influence or discipline?
Students plagiarize due to ignorance, personal or peer-group pressures, values and practices, the opportunities presented, and the risks and consequences of getting caught. This diversity of internal and external influences upon students’ decisions to plagiarize suggests the necessity of a holistic strategy by educational institutions to teach and encourage professional ethics and discourage academic fraud. Various technical, pedagogical, administrative, regulatory and, perhaps, legal measures can be taken to prevent or discourage plagiarism, all this together with efforts to build consensus among students, teachers and administrators about definitions, norms and the acceptance of individual and institutional responsibilities to make the system work. Then, when cases arise, teachers and administrators also need recognized structures and clear guidance to respond consistently while also respecting students’ human rights.
Early and ongoing prevention
To reduce plagiarism, prevention is best. The primary focus should be on promoting writing and analytical skills, emphasizing the academic and economic benefits of proper techniques and good ethics, providing technological tools to train students to quote, reference and paraphrase properly, and establishing a private or public regulatory framework to ensure that universities, teachers and students cooperate and organize strategically on multiple fronts to prevent academic fraud, including plagiarism.
Administrators need to work with professors and students to build a strong, committed consensus that the academic goal of training original thinkers who have dignity and honour is good for students, universities and nations. Then, universities must teach new students about the necessity and techniques for properly referencing sources and provide instructional materials and referencing software so students and staff can clarify doubts and reduce errors. To eliminate the didactical confusion that arises when definitions and styles vary from professor to professor requires a consistent university-wide referencing policy that permits variations for specific disciplines (e.g., law, medicine, engineering) and, preferably, is reinforced by a sequence of writing skills courses or seminars during the degree course (Cleal 2005, p. 49; Ellery 2008, p. 513–14; Pecorari 2013: KL2358). Moreover, universities should firmly discourage (i) use of secondary sources when the primary sources are available and (ii) dependence on often unreliable sources such as Wikipedia and non-Ph.D. theses since these two practices are often signs of superficial research and poor professional judgment, frequently associated with plagiarism. To enforce this directive, a university might prohibit such practices unless a professor or supervisor grants an exemption due to the exceptional quality of the source.
Buttressing this consensus and regulatory framework, lecturers need to emphasize the importance of good writing and correct referencing (Pecorari 2013:KL2358) and then be manifestly vigilant about plagiarism, a responsibility that many shirk, minify or reject. Wherever many lecturers have such negative attitudes, administrators face a substantial challenge to work with the academic community to build consensus about definitions, proper citation techniques, disciplinary regulations, and the urgent need for lecturers to promote professional ethics, help students to improve their writing and referencing skills, and cooperate with the disciplinary structures for cases of serious plagiarism. To train students and detect plagiarism more easily, lecturers need TSR software and, when reporting significant violations, merit administrative support. Moreover, due to “the strong association between past and future academic dishonesty, … individuals who have participated in academic dishonesty are quite likely to offend again”. Universities, therefore, need a computerized central registry for incidents of cheating handled by a teacher or adjudicated by the university (Williams & Williams 2012, p. 106). The system should detect repetitive cheats and automatically inform the disciplinary structures (Devlin 2006, p. 50).
Universities should also mandate the publication of bachelor, masters and Ph.D. theses over the Internet, which is increasingly popular as more and more universities adhere to the Budapest Open Access Initiative for wide dissemination of peer-reviewed research results (Xia et al. 2012, p. 90; Weber-Wulff 2012, p. 33; BOAI Budapest Open Access Initiative 2002, BOAI 2012; Deutsche Nationalbibliothek 2009). Electronic publication facilitates public access and permits TSR software to scan uploaded theses as possible sources for plagiarized works. Though open-access publication may convince degree candidates that plagiarism is risky, it might threaten the economic interests of an author whose thesis presents potentially valuable discoveries, inventions or literary works. To safeguard such content, authors could be allowed to justify and request a temporary but renewable embargo on publication (Hawkins et al. 2013).
With exponential growth of the Internet, the ghost-writing of term papers, theses and dissertations became a burgeoning business threatening the credibility of the degrees issued by educational institutions where academic fraud is rife (Rooks 2006). To combat this, many US states have criminalized the direct or indirect sale of term papers, theses, dissertations or “other materials to be submitted for academic credit” (Berry 2010, p. 131–32). Some states permit universities “to request a court to enjoin a business from selling term papers, etc., to its students” (Standler 2012, p. 69). Despite many successful cases enjoining or closing down such companies, the laws and law suits have not halted the paper mills’ popularity or profitability. Nevertheless, such laws comprise an important part of a holistic anti-plagiarism strategy (Dickerson 2007, p. 46).
Other legal or regulatory measures may also help in contexts where some higher education institutions are strong and others are new and academically weak. National regulation can require all higher education institutions to (i) use TSR software to screen theses and, eventually, class papers, (ii) divulge theses on the Internet, and (iii) define and implement a holistic strategy against plagiarism and other academic fraud.d And, to thwart use of class papers from prior years or other nearby higher education institutions, TSR software should be permitted to retain copies in their databases.
Pedagogical changes can also be useful. For example, Kerkvliet and Sigmund (1999), p. 341) found that “students taught by faculty, rather than graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), were 32% less likely to cheat. This is strong evidence that the use of GTAs is costly in terms of academic honesty”. Also, the reuse of “old assessment tasks and topics makes it easy for students to plagiarise” from prior papers (Ford & Hughes 2012, p. 184). Another “strategy is to avoid giving open-ended or generic topic assignments. Allowing students to write about any topic of their choosing (‘pick some topic related to this course’) or giving general topics (‘write on a social concern’) makes plagiarism appealing and easy” since online cheat sites provide thousands of papers on such topics (Rooks 2006, p. 4). Instead, professors should, when possible, assign projects involving field or laboratory research requiring original work thus reducing opportunities for plagiarism or, worse yet, the purchase of ready-made reports from “paper mills”. As for theses, oral examination committees must be keenly aware of their two critical functions: (i) to determine the quality of the work and (ii) to use detailed questioning and, in seriously dubious cases, perhaps even the Cloze test to confirm that the work is, in fact, that of the degree candidate (McKelvie et al. 2004, p. 9; Rooks 2006, p. 6; Standing & Gorassini 1986, p. 132).
Traditional or modified honour codes also yield measureable results though their implementation may encounter scepticism and resistance, especially from lecturers who lack honour-code experience (McCabe et al. 2003, p. 383). However, honour codes and shared governance make students partly responsible for dealing with cheating. This reduction represents “an important selling point to those non-code faculty who are reluctant to take on the unwanted responsibility of monitoring and policing student cheating” (McCabe et al. 2003, p. 383).
Resistance to honour codes and even to the entire effort to detect and discourage plagiarism may be intense if many of the lecturers graduated from institutions rife with academic fraud, as sometimes happens in countries with rapidly expanding university systems and many new, often small, and far from robust higher education institutions. In these conditions, some staff may feel personally threatened by proposals for a stricter code. To mitigate fears of possible denunciations and garner support may require an amnesty for past plagiarism while senior, highly published academics mount vigorous pedagogical efforts to ensure that all professors, teaching assistants and academics know the norms well. Thus, to confront such an academic crisis, the focus must be on the future, not the past.
Detection and consequences
Though, to reduce plagiarism, prevention must be primary, analysts generally agree that detection and remedial and disciplinary measures are also essential (Weber-Wulff 2014; Blum 2010; Pecorari 2006; McCabe et al. 2012). To detect plagiarism requires skills and technology complemented by clear agreed-upon administrative structures and regulations to guide professors confronting minor offences, and disciplinary committees judging serious cases. For example, how does one judge the seriousness of a case of plagiarism? What should the consequences be when deceptive intent is clearly present? Or when it is not? Teaching and minor reprimands seem best for new and junior students who are first or second offenders, with sterner measures reserved for senior and repeat offenders (Tennant & Rowell 2010; Yeo & Chien 2007). Definite consequences must also be mandated for plagiarism discovered in a thesis after the diploma is issued (Pavela 1999; Standler 2012). Moreover, when denouncing significant academic fraud, lecturers must be confident that their diligence is appreciated and appropriate disciplinary and pedagogical measures will ensue (Schmelkin et al. 2001, p. 6; Heckler et al. 2013, p. 244).
Detection measures and disciplinary consequences inspire proper practice and better learning. For example, in papers submitted by 664 students in one US university, 16.6% of the content was plagiarized if the use of TSR software not anticipated versus 9.8% after a warning (Heckler et al. 2013, p. 235). Similarly, among 569 internal and external business students at a New Zealand university, 31.4% committed plagiarism before the warning, whereas, once forewarned, only 21% did so on the next assignment (Walker 2010, p. 9). Thus, vigilance, detection and punishment—taken together—buttress the educational and normative approaches to prevention. Toward that end, participation by student leaders in educational efforts to deter plagiarism and, later, in disciplinary hearings fortifies the desire by students to learn to cite correctly and avoid plagiarism.