5th International Plagiarism Conference: Day two keynotes

The audience is bright eyed and bushy tailed (no really!) after the fantastic conference dinner last night and awaiting the first keynote of the day.

Tara Brabazon from the U of Bolton started the day exploring the intellectual and automated world in which we now find ourselves. Her point about the rather inappropriate strategy we take at induction mirror’s Peter Hartley’s point that our overly-anxious induction strategies do little more than tell students that plagiarism is something that will benefit them, tells them how to do it and that they are likely to get away with it. The agenda for her talk is to discuss what is not being discussed and talked about. She names plagiarists as modern-day folk devils. There’s certainly growing evidence that plagiarism is getting a high profile with several recent public cases (particularly in Germany, Romania and Hungary). Tara argued that information literacy is an important factor in all of this. She cited research conducted by JISC about the different reading practices that are undertaken on screen as opposed to paper. I’m surprised by this and am interested in looking into this research further. While she advocated paper-based marking as substantively different to online marking, she then complained that students didn’t collect the paper-based feedback over which she had laboured. She speculated that they were only interested in collecting their mark and not their feedback. However, the dislocation of these two things (offering a mark online and feedback on paper) is surely a more significant cause. This simply hasn’t been my experience: students are very keen, if not desperate for their feedback. Joining these two things together and finding ways to get them to ‘talk to’ each other is, as this project is discovering, one of the key benefits of online marking.

The target of her concerns turned to assessment design and she offered a number of strategies but I can’t help wondering about the resource implications of her suggestions. I’m not at all convinced these are scalable to the large classes many of us are now having to deal with. It’s interesting that her observation of the different level of ability between Australian and British students mirrors my own experience. It was great to see the University of Wollongong‘s StartSmart program (the new version of ILIP) as a good example of this.

I have had the honour of being invited to offer the summary at the end of the conference. Some of the sessions I had signed up to had been cancelled so I used the time to put my thoughts together. I did, however, have the pleasure of chairing a session delivered by Radhika Iyer-O’Sullivan with the compelling title ‘I can’t say it any better’. She shared things from her perspective as a writing and EAP tutor at the British University in Dubai.

Kirby Ferguson took us in a different direction by starting from the ‘Everything is a Remix’ point of departure. He explored some of the myths of creativity (going way back in history from the Englightenment through the Romantics to Modernism). He covered a huge amount of territory including Chic, Daft Punk, Bob Dylan, Richard Prior, Hunter S. Thompson, showing that what we consider to be ‘plagiarism’ is vastly complex. The very compelling argument that a great deal of what we do in any kind of creative or intellectual endeavour is about adding to, building upon and transforming that which already exists. The steam engine, the QWERTY keyboard, the lightbulb and countless other technologies wouldn’t exist without this strategy. Inventions such as Fordism, printing and the world wide web all came into being by merging and bringing together existing technologies and ideas in new ways. Copy, Transform and Combine are the three layers of this. This notion of remixing has plenty of implications on what we consider to be plagiarism of course.

His powerful point that the lone creator and that ideas are property is changing and different to how we used to think about it. His argument that it is linked to money is something that has resonated in several conversations I’ve had elsewhere in this conference. Obviously this left us all with questions about what all of this might mean for us and Tracey Bretag asked the question on all of our minds and, no surprisingly, Kirby said that he doesn’t have a great answer to that. But his answer was great: that it’s about honesty and transparency. He also acknowledged that he is talking from a very different context to us.

She offered some interesting accusations about poor teaching and assessment strategies and made an impassioned plea for all academic teaching staff to be qualified to doctoral level (and therefore to be active researchers) and to be trained teachers. The call for ongoing professional development, a policy the HEA is now pursuing with fervour, is surely an answer to the situation we now find ourselves in in the academy.

After (a rather delicious) lunch we were joined by Professor Jonathan Zittrain from Harvard University via video link from Cambridge MA. He took us through a journey which was very much from the student perspective: tackling the very real problem of filling in the blank sheet of paper that faces them. What I really enjoyed hearing in this paper was a very real and reasonable consideration of the emotional side of this from the student perspective. The difference between the extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, he argued, is very similar for students and tutors. They are extrinsically motivated to get their work in to us, we are extrinsically motivated to mark it and get it back to them. The idea of moving this to a more intrinsically motivated system. The idea of ‘caring’ is central to this and is, of course, a really powerful emotion.

He shared some interesting new developments such as Amazon Mechanical Turk which is intriguing. I was really happy to hear him talk so positively about Wikipedia as a place where very lively academic discussion takes place and where the contributors are strongly intrinsically motivated. His encouragement to incorporate this kind of authoring into our assessment design is to be positively welcomed. He used the example of the removal of the ‘By’ option on the Creative Commons license as an example of just how valuable attribution is to the vast majority of people who contribute artifacts to the digital world. This is, he suggests, a really useful ‘hook’ to use to discuss the issue of attribution and respect. His point here is that even in this world where people are sharing things openly, they nevertheless care very much about provenance and attribution.

He talked about the impact that the role that academic publishing plays in all of this and conversely the impact that this is having on scholarly publishing, arguing that it is a “collective abdication for using citation as ways of deciding academic merit”. His example of the Amazon case relating to George Orwell’s 1984 was truly extraordinary. I was particularly intrigued by his consideration of the library as moving from a fortress to a kind of ‘hub’ for this new digital world. He called for it to be a ‘curator with a sense for the material that is there and enough custodial interest in it’.