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Ways to minimise plagiarism

THE VALUE of an academic degree depends not only on the quality of knowledge students acquire but also on how they achieve their degree and every institution of higher education needs to guarantee that its students and faculty comply with scholastic honesty rules. Because not all educational institutions in Slovakia pay the same degree of attention to the issue of scholastic honesty, the Ministry of Education is attempting to achieve a certain level of standardisation by creating a central register of students’ theses and dissertations, known by the acronym CRTD.

THE VALUE of an academic degree depends not only on the quality of knowledge students acquire but also on how they achieve their degree and every institution of higher education needs to guarantee that its students and faculty comply with scholastic honesty rules. Because not all educational institutions in Slovakia pay the same degree of attention to the issue of scholastic honesty, the Ministry of Education is attempting to achieve a certain level of standardisation by creating a central register of students’ theses and dissertations, known by the acronym CRTD.

This register is the depository for the final thesis projects of all students in Slovakia and its electronic anti-plagiarism system compares documents against other students’ theses and with a database of selected internet sources to detect dishonesty. The report generated by this electronic checking process shows any similarities between a submitted paper and other documents in the database and is then provided to the student’s thesis advisor. CRTD has been in use only since 2010 and it is too early to make any definitive judgments about its efficacy.

The School of Management (Vysoká škola manažmentu) of the City University of Seattle in Slovakia, with campuses in Trenčín and Bratislava, was the first institution of higher education here to use the services of an electronic anti-plagiarism system on its own initiative beginning in 2002 and not only for final thesis projects. This system where I work performs efficiently due to its large database, longer experience and continuous improvements made based on suggestions from teachers and students and its preventive function provides credible deterrence against plagiarism. Moreover, it makes teachers’ lives easier as it is nearly impossible for them to personally check the originality of every paper submitted to them. The electronic review of students’ papers motivates them to be more responsible and careful when working with reference sources throughout their whole course of university study – not only when preparing a final thesis.

This electronic system and similar versions at other universities in Slovakia have some drawbacks as well. An electronic review cannot tell for a fact if a paper has been plagiarised, it can only mark similarities in the text and these might include documents that present generally-known information or text that has been properly cited. The size of the databases available for comparison also represents another limitation even though they typically store many millions of references.

For these reasons the human factor still plays an important role in checking a paper’s originality – which means having people review the electronic reports of originality to factually decide whether a suspicious paper is truly plagiarised. A designated person or a team of people who are specialists in detecting plagiarism is required rather than just anonymous persons or teachers who do not have time to handle such a task. Having such a department at a university draws attention to the process and establishes the impression that the school takes the question of academic integrity seriously.

But enforcing honesty should not focus only on detection after the fact. Most Slovak schools have defined ethical codes and sanctions for not following them. Students should, however, be well-informed about these codes and be taught how to avoid breaking the rules before they actually start their studies. Short instructions should be given at the beginning of each course during a student’s entire university life. It is also important that the syllabus for each course contains information on scholastic honesty rules along with a referral to people who are responsible for this area and how to get further information.

Preparing a course on academic writing and including it in all students’ study programmes at the beginning of their university life is another important step, along with a clearly-written guide that defines the rules for properly citing sources as a supporting document for every course. Clearly-defined procedures and sanctions when there are suspicions of violations of scholastic honesty rules are another requirement. Online information available at the website of each school can also serve as effective support for the above-mentioned steps.

Several dozen cases of plagiarism are detected each academic year through use of the electronic system for detecting plagiarism that schools affiliated with the City University of Seattle have applied for 10 years and the number of violations is gradually decreasing. The sanctions in these cases have varied from a failing grade on an assignment or course to a period of suspension and even expulsion from school. The sanction of expulsion is applied only after a third violation of the scholastic honesty rules and the School of Management has expelled three students for this reason.

Application of all of these suggested methods will probably not lead to the total elimination of plagiarism in the Slovak education system but they do have a positive effect on young people’s behaviour and make them think about scholastic honesty well before the due date of their final thesis project.

Peter Kročitý is employed by the School of Management of City University of Seattle in Slovakia

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