The previous chapters dealt with a number of important topics, whether theoretical (referencing rules, text originality) or more practical (detecting and penalising plagiarism). We would like to approach the final chapter from a purely practical perspective and summarise the topic in the form of advice, which should help to reduce the incidence of plagiarism in student work. We will begin with a simple motto: “Prevention is better than restrictions and sanctions.”
1. Make it clear to students from the beginning that any form of plagiarism is not permitted
The academic environment is, in and of itself, quite a complicated place with a number of internal customs, relationships and operational rules. It might not be easy for students to know their way around this environment perfectly from the beginning, and, at the same time, to understand that, in some areas, the boundaries are clearly fixed and no discussion is allowed. Across the academic community, plagiarism is generally regarded as a serious transgression. For that reason, a strict ban on plagiarism is an integral part of ethical codes, and sometimes it is even dealt with by special regulations or guidance on procedures. An unambiguous explanation is very much desirable as it prevents any potential doubts. On their own, however, the formal rules and expectations that the academic community should abide by are not enough. It is also necessary to ensure that individual members of the academic community are aware of them and understand them. Therefore, it is essential to keep explaining to students, at the beginning and during their studies, what plagiarism is, what different forms it can take, and that it is completely forbidden. Students then will not be able to plead ignorance as their excuse, and any case of plagiarism will be an intentional act.
2. Do not assume that students enter university with a (perfect) skill of academic writing
Similarly, the following advice is aimed at the requirement for good awareness and education of students. Everyday practice clearly shows that the knowledge, skills and attitudes of students who enter university studies vary significantly. The skill of academic writing is not tested as part of the admission process in many study programmes, and it is, therefore, unsurprising that many candidates begin their studies without this skill. For this reason, it is necessary to include the teaching of academic writing in all study programmes – not as an accessory subject, but as an integral part. Students should have the opportunity (or rather obligation) to complete at least a basic course on this issue, within which all the necessary requirements for fulfilling their study obligations are comprehensibly explained to them. For some study programmes, basic knowledge and skill in this area will not be sufficient, and in those programmes, students should have the opportunity to complete different variations of the relevant courses or a different way of demonstrating the essential competences. Students must not encounter the teaching of academic writing for the first time while writing their final theses.
3. If you expect original work, prepare an original assignment
The third piece of advice is very simple and following it requires neither a lot of time nor resources. If we require original work from students, we should dedicate some time to designing an original assignment. Recycling topics for assignments (of any level) by itself invites plagiarism. How can we demand that students put effort into writing their work if teachers do not put effort into preparing an original topic? Why should I write a paper on a topic that has already been covered by ten other students? These and similar questions rightly come into students’ minds. Original work deserves an original assignment.
4. Do not supervise too many theses simultaneously
This piece of advice is also very simple. Adhering to it, however, may prove more complicated and it depends on a number of factors within individual departments, study programmes and you yourself. Management of universities, guarantors or study programmes, department heads and individual academics should all make a common effort to ensure that supervisors have enough time and space for fulfilling their role and working with students. A merely formal supervision with no actual involvement and contribution is not the best arrangement.
5. If the work is extensive, check the student’s progress regularly
Many students struggle when writing their final thesis. That might be due to content (development of the topic), wrong pace of work (time pressure), lack of skills or external factors. Some students contact their supervisors and ask for advice or help, others, unfortunately, keep silent and let the problem reach a stage that is hard to resolve. Plagiarism is one of the outcomes. One of the effective preventative measures, therefore, is regular communication with the student (see point 4) and checking the progress of his or her work. That does not mean that the checks should be overly frequent and merely formal. The goal is to have an overview of how the student is progressing, provide relevant feedback and offer help if the situation requires it.
6. Do not rely just on antiplagiarism systems; the opinion of an expert knowledgeable in the given issue (that is you!) is key
Antiplagiarism systems are covered in detail in chapter 5. Here, we only want to highlight that such tools can never replace the work of a specialist who is knowledgeable about the given issue. They are merely tools serving for a more or less perfect comparison of the uploaded text with a database of earlier published text sources. In this regard, the systems have a much better ability than humans to detect whether a student has copied a larger or smaller passage of a specific document into the text of his or her own work. However, only an expert knowledgeable in the given field can subsequently evaluate whether the detected similarity actually constitutes plagiarism (the source is not declared), whether the similarity is insignificant (stating common knowledge, false similarity), or whether the similarity is in fact desirable (correct citation, for example of a relevant article). Currently, systems are unable to make such a judgement and cannot understand the meaning of the text. It is also true, however, that without them we would be wholly oblivious in many situations as nobody can have a complete awareness of all work ever written. Therefore, do not be afraid to use them (more often rather than less), but always with common sense and a professional evaluation of their findings.
Finally, we wish you to encounter plagiarism as little as possible, and to be able to dedicate your efforts to the professional development of your students instead of dealing with ethical transgressions