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Understanding and preventing plagiarism

An international partnership has been established to better understand plagiarism among graduate students.


Martine Peters, a professor in the department of education sciences at the Université du Québec en Outaouais, still remembers her first case of plagiarism at the graduate level: “It was a rude awakening, because the student told me, ‘You never said we shouldn’t do this.’ And he was right – I assumed that he knew.” That was how she first became interested in different infractions among university students, and plagiarism in particular.

“I’m trying to understand the process and the role that language habits and writing habits play in plagiarism,” she explained. In other words, why do students plagiarize, and how can we provide them with the necessary skills to avoid it? “Students who plagiarize aren’t learning what they need to learn,” Dr. Peters noted.

The researcher first obtained a partnership development grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada in 2016; she has just received another major seven-year grant from the same council to establish the Partenariat universitaire sur la prévention du plagiat (PUPP).

Understanding plagiarism

Rather than cataloguing cases of plagiarism, this vast research project seeks to understand the reasons behind plagiarism and the strategies that students use when writing. It also aims to propose teaching methods to provide students with the tools, knowledge and confidence they need to do their own work. After all, students who plagiarize don’t always do it in bad faith. “They forget that it’s not just the words that belong to the original authors, it’s also their ideas,” said Dr. Peters.

The 59 researchers and collaborators involved with PUPP will examine four essential dimensions to reduce plagiarism:

  • the ability to search for and find information;
  • writing skills;
  • knowing how to reference documents; and
  • knowing what plagiarism is and why authors shouldn’t do it

To date, no research project has looked at all four of these dimensions at once. “Over the past 10 years, the writing process has completely changed with the growth of digital tools. But we don’t know what students actually do,” the professor acknowledged.

Analyzing authors’ methods

To do this, the team will equip computers with monitoring software to observe how students work and what actions they take when they are writing a university text, from the moment when they receive the instructions until they submit their work. These processes will be compared to those used by experts in writing this type of text: university professors.

The first four years of the partnership will focus on collecting data from 840 students from 29 universities around the world (Canada, United States, France, England, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Portugal and Turkey). The research includes another unique aspect in that it will collect data in English and French, as a native language and as a second language. “Multiple studies of plagiarism among foreign students show that the strategies used when writing in a second language are different from those used in their first language, and that students are prone to plagiarize when they’re writing in a language they don’t feel comfortable with,” said Dr. Peters. The researchers also suspect that cultural dimensions play a role in the action of plagiarizing. “Not all students have the same educational foundation,” she pointed out.

Preventing rather than punishing

In the second stage of the project, the partnership aims to develop materials that will offer solutions to plagiarism. “We want to prevent rather than punish. By the time the punishment comes, it’s already too late,” said Dr. Peters. Not all professors are properly equipped to prevent plagiarism, not to mention the frequent gap between their expectations and their students’ knowledge. For example, as part of the project financed by the partnership development grant, in which nine Quebec partners have participated, the researchers have discovered that almost all students expected to be taught about the four dimensions listed above at university. But many professors assumed that these skills had already been learned at the CÉGEP or college level.

Because students who plagiarize end up worse off for it, whether or not they are caught, the proposed strategies would equip educators to better prepare their students, and ultimately to prevent plagiarism. “They go to university to learn something. If they learn better, they’ll do better on the job market,” Dr. Peters concluded.

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