Students and plagiarism

Students and plagiarism. It seems like an ineradicable problem, also at TU Delft. The university tries to combat it in various ways, but clearer and especially consistent rules couldn’t hurt.

Students who copy someone else’s work without correctly quoting or paraphrasing it, or without referencing their source: for nearly all faculties it is a phenomenon that returns every year, as figures from the Boards of Examiners show. “It is a set subject during every meeting,” says Erik Ootes, secretary of the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment’s Board of Examiners. “It is being reported more often. We ask lecturers to do that, however small it is. We need to know, in order to prevent students from pushing the limits.”

Because students do tend to push the limits: at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, Ootes counted seven cases of plagiarism in 2011-2012 and eight a year later. Two years ago, it turned out that there were six cases of plagiarism in one course in Industrial Design Engineering, in which a total of nineteen students was involved. They hadn’t all plagiarised. “Of those students, around half had copied work from the other half,” says the secretary of the Board of Examiners, Joop van Eijk.

Every year, the Boards of Examiners at the other faculties invariably get a handful of reports of plagiarism. Applied Sciences seems to be an exception: during the past two years they had fewer reports of plagiarism, and the year before there was only one. “Students are part of current research,” says Corrie Zeeuw from the Board of Examiners.

Plagiarism folder

The university is trying to combat plagiarism. TU Delft’s code of ethics states: “Students of all levels are familiar with the published policy on the subject of plagiarism and fraud at the university.” An inventory done by Education and Student Affairs showed that five faculties actively handed out a plagiarism folder to their students at the beginning of the year. The Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment limits itself to a talk by the Director of Education and the Faculties of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering (3mE) placed the plagiarism folder on their websites.

The plagiarism folder explains what paraphrasing and quoting are and how to do that, in general: always with a correct indication of the source, and with quotation marks in the case of direct quoting. Apart from this, the folder warns that papers can be checked with a plagiarism scanner and that the Board of Examiners can impose a punishment ranging from a reprimand to exclusion from one or more examinations up to a year of exclusion from all examinations.

The library also offers three courses on information literacy: information literacy I, II and III. Number I is for first year Bachelor’s students. Last year was the first time all Bachelor’s degree programmes included course I in their curriculum. Part of it is a plagiarism test, developed by Indiana University. The test consists of ten questions with examples in order to recognise plagiarism. Course II is a follow-up course and III is for Master’s students.

In addition, the Centre for Languages and Academic Skills at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management (TPM) organises a course on technical writing for various (but not all) degree programmes. It is offered in Dutch and English, and scientific writing is a follow-up course that is offered in second year. These subjects can also be taken as electives.

The technical writing course focuses especially on scientific plagiarism. Copying one another’s homework or copying from is a different form, says Pauline Post, communicative skills lecturer and coordinator. “That’s considered cheating nowadays.” Even as a lecturer in writing techniques, Angeniet Kam notices at least once a year that students copy one another’s homework. “And that when you’ve said very clearly in the instructions that they have to do it individually.”

Repeated offender

Kam found an incident of deliberate plagiarism last year particularly painful. It concerned a final, graded paper. “I had already had to give that student a lot of feedback on language during the course. The paper was almost flawlessly written. Then you think: something isn’t right here, what’s going on?” Kam put the text into Safe Assign, the plagiarism scanner on Blackboard that lecturers can use to compare texts with the Internet and anything that’s been uploaded into Safe Assign before. The plagiarism scanner didn’t return a score that set alarm bells ringing for Kam.

After that, Kam googled one suspicious sentence from the paper. It turned out to be from a report the student had used. “At least fifty per cent of his paper was literally copied from that study,” says Kam. The student admitted that it might not have been so clever. But then he had ‘so many other things to do’. The Board of Examiners discovered that the student was a repeated offender. “He was not allowed to re-register for the subject for six months. Luckily incidents like these are not common.”

This shows that the plagiarism scanner does not find every instance of plagiarism. Safe Assign only compares texts: the scanner doesn’t find matches in illustrations, calculations, diagrams and formulas. TU Delft is looking into other options.

If a text returns a low score in the plagiarism scanner, there are few similarities with other texts. But at what percentage do you check? “I only check with a score above eighty per cent,” says Ernest van Breemen. He is one of the front runners in the use of the plagiarism scanner at Industrial Design Engineering. “If an assignment is handed in where the questions have been included and the answers do not contain a lot of text, there’s often a high score of more than fifty, sixty or seventy per cent. That happens so often that I barely look at scores between fifty and eighty per cent.”

Van Breemen is the coordinator of the Bachelor’s graduation project for IDE and teaches the course Products in Action. It was in this course that nineteen students were involved in plagiarism two years ago. In this course, students are divided into groups and for the last few years, they have had to hand in an assignment in pairs. They are not allowed to work together with someone in another group. “Students have turned in parts of other people’s work every year since the beginning, almost exclusively work by other pairs. If we let everyone work individually, we would have twice as much to mark. I don’t have enough hours for that, not even including student teaching assistants.”

According to Van Breemen, it happens regularly that students get hold of an assignment from a previous year, for instance because a senior student helped them. “They have said something like: have a look at this. And instead of using that as learning material, they have simply copied it from start to finish.” For the Bachelor’s graduation project, Van Breemen has built in a testing opportunity in Safe Assign. Students can check beforehand how many similarities there are in their assignment. “This means you can guide them and refer them to correct citation methods. They learn from this.”

His colleague Bas Flipsen once experienced that two groups handed in almost the same assignment. “You see two project groups sitting at one table, working together, and I wonder: should I stimulate them to work together or keep them separate? It doesn’t seem fair to punish someone for sharing their knowledge. I found it very difficult.”

Flipsen thinks students are not always good at citation. “They write a paper and put ten website URLs at the end. Then I ask: where did you use this source? ‘I don’t know.’ But that’s exactly the point. You also need the title of the piece and you should try to find the author. Otherwise you can’t look it up. You have good and bad referencing and students have no clue about this.”

Stress and incompetence

According to a literature survey by Dimitra Dodou and Joost de Winter (2011) of the 3mE Faculty, lack of knowledge and experience are often causes of plagiarism. Students are said to find plagiarism from Internet sources less serious, because they see the web as a public source. Bad time management, an incorrect interpretation of teamwork, a secondary-school habit of reproducing things, stress and incompetence were other reasons for plagiarism, Dodou and De Winter discovered.

Their literature review also shows that some types of students plagiarise more than others. There is a higher risk among young or weak students, students who are less strong verbally, or very ambitious students. One of the most important causes of plagiarism for international students is problems with the English language. Students are so uncertain about their reformulations that they use other people’s words.

Copying is okay

Apart from this, cultural values turn out to play a role for international students. Angeniet Kam notices this too: “Foreign students are often unfamiliar with customs in our western culture. In Asia, the words of the master are often still very important: there’s nothing better than that. So it’s okay if you copy from the master, to exaggerate slightly. That’s a different kind of writing culture.”

In her paper, Dodou also described her experiences with eighteen Master’s students who each had to write three texts. After the first assignment, it turned out that four students had plagiarised, after which Dodou gave them a written explanation of plagiarism. In the second assignment, these students did better, but there were six new cases. These six were also given written instructions and a talk, from which it emerged that there was a lack of knowledge. Dodou decided to discuss the matter in class, and she noticed that lack of knowledge was the problem; it wasn’t deliberate. Of the twelve students present, only two plagiarised in the third assignment.

Although this concerned a very small group and the plagiarism had not completely disappeared, Dodou is hopeful. “I suspect it will be all right. The dozens of papers every student writes offer enough opportunities to learn. Plagiarism can be eliminated through instruction.”

Still, according to Pauline Post and Angeniet Kam, those instructions at TU Delft could be improved. In their subjects they cover different citation methods and give many examples, like the commonly used American Psychological Association style (APA, example: below this article). “That immediately shows what the problem is,” says Kam. “Here at TPM, APA is a frequently used style, but in Aerospace Engineering, Applied Physics, Molecular Science & Technology and other degree programmes a numerical system is used. This can make it quite confusing for students. One lecturer prescribes this, the other prescribes that. TU Delft has no central policy for this. It would help if there was a helpful booklet or online instructions with rules that apply throughout the Bachelor’s degree programme. That offers clarity.”

Lecturers themselves don’t always do it right either, Kam noticed. “Project manuals often do not fully comply with the requirements. Students do have a point then, when I say their bibliographical entry isn’t correct. They say so, literally: ‘Yes, but I copied it exactly like it was in the project manual.’ I guess lecturers make mistakes too, they’re only human.”

(Source: Dodou, D., De Winter, J.C.F. (2011). ‘Why students’ plagiarism is such a persistent phenomenon: A literature review and empirical study.’ Accessed on


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