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University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


New research: European students »surprisingly« unfamiliar with plagiarism rules

Researcher says the numbers are »concerning« and criticises universities for »leaving students in the lurch« by not preparing them sufficiently.

How much of a text can you copy, and how much should you paraphrase for it to no longer be plagiarism?

These are the questions that students ask themselves year after year, according to Mads Paludan Goddiksen.

He is a postdoc at the Section for Consumption, Bioethics and Regulation at the University of Copenhagen and teaches the current regulations to students on a number of study programmes at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH).

»When you hear about students cheating in the media, you get the impression that it is always a question of students cheating on purpose,« says Mads Paludan Goddiksen.

But he co-authored a new study which tells a different story. Many students are fundamentally in the dark about the subtle nuances of the exam regulations.

»There are, certainly, students who deliberately cheat. But our research also suggests that there are a lot of students who cheat without knowing it,« says Mads Paludan Goddiksen.

The data in the study comes from a questionnaire survey of students’ knowledge of exam regulations, which he conducted with a number of colleagues. 1,639 bachelor’s students from seven countries, Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, Portugal, Slovenia and Switzerland, responded. The students were uncertain as to which rules apply on plagiarism in all the countries surveyed.

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Almost half of the students in the study had, for example, been uncertain about correct citation practice. And many students revealed their ignorance when presented with specific examples of plagiarism.

Mads Paludan Goddiksen says universities »leave students in the lurch« when they are uncertain about regulations.

»Secondary schools certainly share part of the responsibility. But the universities are clearly not doing enough to help students understand the rules under which they are working,« he says, and points out that sanctions typically do not take into account whether students knew about the rules or not.

Confusing grey zones

Mads Paludan Goddiksen teaches students on a number of study programmes at Frederiksberg Campus on exam regulations. So he knew there was a problem.

»But I’m surprised by how few students know the rules, and this is concerning.«

When it comes to the most serious offences, the vast majority of them understand the rules. 93 per cent of students in the survey knew, for example, that you are not allowed to copy a whole page from a source.

But as the examples became a little less clear, suddenly far more students did not know how the rules applied.

In an example where a 41-word piece of text was a direct copy from another source without reference, one in four replied that the example was ‘completely acceptable’ or ‘acceptable’ – but this would be clearly assessed to be plagiarism in both Danish and international definitions.

»When more student estimation is needed, then students really found it difficult,« says Mads Paludan Goddiksen.

He points out that a text in the methodology section, which is very close to others’ description of the same method, would be acceptable in practice if reference is made to the original.

»But if it is in the discussion section, it is expected that the text should contribute something new. Then it would typically be considered plagiarism if your text is too close to other people’s text,« he says.

But few students were aware of these subtleties in the study. Students tended generally to either respond that something was permitted or banned. Only a few used the opportunity to respond that the rules were either unclear or depended on the context.

»The students, in other words, have a tendency to think that there is a clear answer. But reality is often different. And it is important that students are aware of the grey areas so they are equipped to handle situations where you have to make your own ethical consideration.«

Current instruction on plagiarism rules is not working

The study showed at the same time that only one fourth of students had received more than one full day of academic integrity training. The group, however, that had received the training, had the same knowledge of the regulations as the rest of them. In terms of questions on grey areas, it even suggested that the training in some cases had a negative effect.

»We know, from other research, that the training is often based on these black-and-white cases, because you want to prevent the most serious cheating. But this can also give students the impression that cheating is limited to the most clearcut transparent cases. There is therefore a real need to increase the focus on the grey areas in the instruction on plagiarism.«

Mads Paludan Goddiksen’s investigation was carried out before the use of AI tools like ChatGPT became widespread. This presents students with a new problem and new ethical grey zones during exam assignment writing. As questions about how to use a service like this can be the cause of even more confusion, according to Mads Paludan Goddiksen.

»As I understand it, the university is not even finished itself in clarifying where the line should be drawn in the long term. But no matter what, this is only a issue that is going to become much more complicated. And then the students will be likely even less confident on what rules apply.«