Plagiarism in Online Learning

Overview of GetReskilled’s Research into Academic Writing and Plagiarism in an Online Environment

Introduction to GetReskilled

GetReskilled is a private education provider, with a strong research team in place and extensive experience in online learning. The team has previously presented their research at the Research Work Learning Conference in Singapore 2015 (RWL), the World Conference on Online Learning in Dublin 2019 (WCOL) and the International Multi-Conference on Society, Cybernetics and Informatics 2020 (IMSCI).

Newly published findings into lowering plagiarism from our research team has been accepted by the Journal of Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics (JSCI) for their December 2020 issue, under the title of “Plagiarism in an Online Learning Environment”.

This research project looked at the experience and effectiveness of implementing a standard plagiarism awareness campaign within an online learning environment. It used the analytical lens of behavioural science to examine the results (where plagiarism scores were High for almost 20% of adult learners due to poor referencing abilities).

In summary, some key takeaways from this Research Project are:

  • The post-COVID world is posing huge challenges within education and the question of how to deal with plagiarism in an online environment has never been more relevant.
  • Current best practice campaigns for plagiarism do work, but they still result in high plagiarism scores due to poor referencing capabilities of every 1-in-5 students. Dealing with this takes significant lecturer time, effort and documentation.
  • There is the possibility of a new approach using Behavioural Science theories that could do more than just catch plagiarism, it could also improve the quality of assignments, the confidence of the students, and reduce the workload of the lecturers.
  • This research project has two phases, Phase-1 has been completed and Phase-2 will include collaboration with a university to expand this research to an undergraduate student audience, which could generate some interesting insights for future publications.

Research Project and Timelines

The Phase-1 project objectives were to assess the effectiveness of a standard plagiarism awareness campaign in an online learning environment.

Teaching in an entirely online environment means that plagiarism considerations are a central part of GetReskilled’s quality standards. Our systems for highlighting, detecting, and dealing with plagiarism followed standard best practice, with our 5-step process:

  1. Students received a 2 page guide covering what plagiarism is, how to avoid it, and why it is serious. They were also advised to contact a named member of staff if they had questions or queries about it. 
  2. The guide was presented at the top of each course page displayed to the learners for the entire duration of their studies. It was re-issued via email each time they had a written assignment. 
  3. Students were further motivated by being reminded that they were entering a life-critical industry where the safety of patients relies on their honesty and adherence to strict protocols, and so plagiarism (intentional or otherwise) raises a significant red flag on their suitability to work in such an industry.
  4. Upon submission, assignments were graded by a lecturer before being passed through a standard plagiarism software. Investigations were then launched by the lecturer if it was deemed necessary.
  5. The purpose of the investigation was to establish if the issues were due to intentional or unintentional plagiarism. Accidental or “unintentional” plagiarism was defined as a high plagiarism score as a result of poor referencing, rather than purposefully presenting someone else’s work as their own. In cases of unintentional plagiarism, where the assignment conclusions were deemed to be the learner’s own, then the assignment can still pass, despite the poor referencing. 

The assignment grades and associated plagiarism scores of 275 adult learners were measured over a two-year period between 2017 and 2019. Half of these adult learners completed a training course with a 1500-word end-of-course assignment, and the other half-completed an academic module with a 3,000 word end-of-module essay. 

An analysis of the data for the academic module revealed that: 

  • 19% of students had a High plagiarism score, which was deemed to be “unintentional” plagiarism by the lecturer, resulting in a Merit or a Pass grade on the paper
  • All students (22%) who achieved a Distinction grade had a Low plagiarism score

Interestingly, the results for students who took the training course were much the same and revealed that:

  • 16% of students had a High plagiarism score, which was deemed to be “unintentional” plagiarism by the lecturer, resulting in a Merit or a Pass grade on the paper
  • All students (47%) who achieved a Distinction grade had a Low plagiarism score

What is also important to note about these results is that they only included students who ultimately passed the assignment. Those students, who the lecturer identified had intentionally plagiarised their assignment (malicious plagiarism), failed the assignment, and were not included for analysis – and that means that the high plagiarism scores in the analysis were all as a result of unintentional plagiarism – in other words, due to poor referencing.

 In summary, across a pool of 275-students over a 2-year period, there were close to 1-in-5 of the student assignments requiring additional lecturer attention as a result of being flagged by plagiarism software. This requires significant time and effort on the part of lecturers to review and document these assignments further. This insight led to research into how to reduce this “unintentional plagiarism” behaviour in an online environment and to answer the research question of “How can the poor referencing abilities of otherwise capable students be addressed, to produce work that is Low plagiarism scoring?”.

Using Behavioural Science theory, the team looked at the data to see what new insights it could generate about the research question:

  • Bounded Rationality suggests the hypothesis that poor referencing by every 1-in- 5 students is due to a failure in their ability to interpret and implement what is taught to them in the current best-practice plagiarism awareness campaigns. This would suggest that alternative approaches should focus on how to make sure the learner has the right amount of information in an easily-processed format.
  • Framing Effect highlights that the current best-practice plagiarism awareness campaigns focus on negative messaging around punishments for plagiarism. The hypothesis here is that an alternative approach of positive messaging could alter how students interpret and implement the information they’re given about referencing, and the advantages to be gained from using and crediting sources appropriately.

With a better understanding of the behaviours that are driving the decision making of our students, the research project converged around a concept of teaching referencing as a way for students to have confidence in their own knowledge, demonstrate this competence to their lecturers, and build more credible arguments in their assignments. This led the team to:

  • Simplification Theory, where students can clearly and concisely discuss the work of a subject matter expert (SME) in their own words, demonstrating that they have a sound understanding of the topic. This can be framed as a useful check for students to self-assess their own understanding of the subject.
  • Messenger Effect, where students can understand that properly acknowledging an SME who supports their argument, gives greater weight to their own argument. This can be framed as an easy and realistic way to potentially increase their grade on their assignment.

Phase-1 of this Research Project concluded that this new approach could result in students having a better understanding of how to use and credit sources properly in their academic writing. This will ultimately lead to better quality assignments, lower plagiarism scores, a reduction in workload for the lecturers and potentially better grades for the students themselves.

This completed Phase-1 of the Research Project. 

A key project milestone was the submission of our paper to the 14th International Multi-Conference on Society, Cybernetics and Informatics: IMSCI 2020. After a thorough 2-stage (blind and non-blind) review process, the paper’s quantitative valuation was 8.5 out of 10, assessed across the following categories of originality, novelty, innovation, relevance, appropriateness, significance, quality and presentation. The paper was accepted and presented at the conference.

The reception to the paper from the reviewers was very positive and their review scoring combined with peer participant review scoring from the conference, resulted in the paper being included in the group of “best papers presented at the conference”. This led to paper being published in the Journal of Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics (JSCI) in December 2020, “Volume 18 – Number 5  – Year 2020, pp. 37-42 ISSN: 1690-4524 (Online)” 

The project timeline is as follows: 

Research Project Phase-2

The research team has developed an Advanced Writing Skills programme with positive Simplification Theory and Messenger Effect nudges at the very heart of it. As part of Phase-2 of this Research Project, GetReskilled would like to collaborate with a university to expand this research project to an undergraduate audience, to explore if this approach to positive messaging around plagiarism avoidance in an online learning environment, could benefit their students. The practicalities of such a joint research project during Phase-2 could involve a number of faculties within the university (both science and humanities).

The goals of this Phase-2 research project include:

  • A post-COVID world will not revert to purely classroom based teaching anymore, and therefore plagiarism in an online environment and strategies for mitigating it, will become a central element of many university’s quality standards
  • Research into this area using the analytical lens of behavioural science produced an overwhelming amount of support amongst subject matter experts, specifically with regards to its relevance to the new “normal”.
  • This research project has two phases, Phase-1 has been completed. The research team is very excited about continuing this research into Phase-2 with a university collaboration to generate some interesting insights for future publications.

Further Reading