HSE has implemented a new antiplagiarism system. The HSE first deputy-rector Vadim Radaev spoke to us about this and answered a few queries about the system.
- Vadim Valeryevich, this is the first year when HSE alumni were obliged to send their diplomas to the anti-plagiarism system for control. Please tell us how it all began and why you decided to implement this programme.
- Let’s start with some ancient history. This situation didn’t begin yesterday or last year, but about 5 years ago when the long-named “Disciplinary penalties procedure for academic rules breaking in written works at the State University Higher School of Economics” was issued.
The idea came about after some young tutors at the Economic Sociology Department told me they were fed up with reading essays and other work which had just been downloaded from the Net. They suggested taking some measures. Then together we wrote a regulation project that beamed a hot topic of discussion at the HSE. Besides copying through Internet, other types of students’ tricks such as cribbing and different forgeries when somebody else’s work is used or another person writes an exam were also included. It also touched on such issues as data falsification. Downloading is just the most widespread example.
- And what was the attitude of colleagues, tutors, and university chiefs to this innovation?
- As I mentioned above it was hot discussion with many different opinions. Of course, nobody supported downloading and cribbing. But many thought nothing would come of talking about it. To fight cribbing is like to fight nature or corruption – everybody sees it but nobody is able to overcome. Some thought the measures suggested were too strict. Shortly speaking, don’t worry about cheating since students cheated in the past, cheat now and will cheat in the future. But most of the colleagues we discussed the idea with supported it.
Thus the General regulation appeared. It was approved by the Academic Council and gave tutors the formal authority to persecute plagiarism. We did not anticipate an overnight revolution because a lot still depended on the tutor. If he does not want to ‘waste’ time on checking nothing will help. But still it was a sign for both tutors and students. We had made our principal point: we would fight plagiarism and punish any cribbing, falsification or forgery discovered.
- Were there any precedents students to be dismissed for plagiarism?
- It is an obvious question: “How many students did you dismiss”? But this is not the issue. We expel for failed tests, not for plagiarism. But if plagiarism is discovered it means a poor mark and hence a failed exam.
If someone is caught for plagiarism, the first time he receives a poor mark or reprimand at most. But the second time it will be a question of expulsion. The most important thing is that the work is not accepted and must be re-written. Those who don’t follow this are expelled. We do not count those dismissed for plagiarism separately among the total number of expelled for poor progress.
For example, I discovered three cases of plagiarism among master-courses students. Three girls received poor marks and had to change topics meaning they had to do completely new work. Two did it and one did not. She was dismissed not for plagiarism but for poor academic progress.
But the main thing is not about sanctions, penalties or some terrible repressive measures we impose. The main thing from our part is precaution: we don’t want these things to happen, we want to cut them short, and we warn of growing risks. You may escape once or twice but your work may be checked at any moment.
- Do you think attitude to plagiarism has changed over the last few years?
- I am very pleased to see that both tutors and students’ attitude to plagiarism has been changing slowly for the better (according to the annual “Gorod” sociological club monitoring). It does not change radically but becomes more and more critical.
- What are the questions respondents have to answer?
- For example, we asked: “What do you think should be done if the work is cribbed or downloaded?” Judging from the answers, there are some positive trends.
- What was the implementation procedure of the “Anti-plagiarism system” at the HSE?
- This year we made a serious and long-anticipated step in the anti-plagiarism campaign. We changed the “Methodic requirements for dissertations”. In addition to good intentions and willpower, we also needed a special organization and the technology for this.
In 2007 the “Anti-plagiarism” system developers came to us. They had developed the most advanced Russian text illegitimate citation revelation system. They said: “We know HSE is the leader in the field, that you really fight plagiarism and want to fight it further. We are the leaders in the market, so we are on the same wavelength. Let's be partners”. The partnership started and they developed particular technical modules for us.
This spring we announced that every student applying for bachelor’s or master’s degree should send his work to our “Anti-plagiarism” system. Once the application form is completed, the system automatically produces a registration paper with unique number confirming the file has been sent. This paper is added to the student work together with the scientific advisor and reviewers` references. From 2008 it will be one of the obligatory documents when submitting work. Initially, the work is sent not to the “Anti-plagiarism” system but to our internal text data-base. Then it is sent for checking. I believe that the process has been organized successfully. About 2500 students’ work was submitted through the corporate portal.
- What did the students think about the innovation?
- Some of them were shocked by this action. Some were frightened, and tried to start preliminary tentative of self- testing: “If I have an unintentional plagiarism”. They even sent files under fake names. The main concern that still exists is that the machine will count something incorrectly. And we answered repeatedly that the system is only a technical piece of equipment that shows some digital indicators. No one will decide anything based solely on the results of the system not. Only a human can come to conclusions, not a digital unit. And this should not be a person who only reads the reports. This should be an expert – a tutor.
- In other words there are no reasons for students to be concerned? Does the system work simply and logically?
- Yes. It works in the following way: a student sends his work as a potential object for checking. We are swiftly enlarging our all-University data-base with an ever expanding archive. That makes attempting to copy from previous essays and diplomas impractical and useless. After that the administrator checks the downloaded work for suspicious elements. “Suspicious” means that unoriginal text share in the text file (i.e. paragraphs, existing in other sources in the base) exceeds some acceptable level.
- And how “acceptable level” can be defined?
- It is not a permanent figure. It can change from time to time or be specific for a particular discipline or depend on the system’s condition. Suspicious works are sent to the tutors with the systems’ automatic report. It is a signal for them: here is something unusual, check it. Only a tutor can analyze and decide whether there is plagiarism or bad citations (the later is also misconduct but not crucial one if the formatting is right). And if some elements of bad citation are discovered only the tutor can decide if the text may be considered original.
- By "tutor", do you mean the academic advisor or could it be someone else?
- It can be someone else if the Chair decides so. But at the moment the work is sent to the academic advisor – an expert in the field - who has already read it. The tutor should then spend some time looking more carefully at the work, since at the first glance something may have been missed. The work should be checked one more time to see if everything is in accordance with acceptable norms or if it is an obvious copy and if necessary, the person should be punished.
- Were there any questions concerning system implementation that puzzled you?
- Different things were written on our forum, including some humorous remarks. For example they asked our Web-site director forum: “Why do you make us send our work to the “Anti-plagiarism” checker? How do we know you do not want to sell them to other people?” It is strange to say such things about the HSE because our reputation is our main asset. We have also adopted the anti-plagiarism campaign as an investment in our reputation. It is an absurd thing to suppose an anti-plagiarism campaign leader can sell students` topics. We laughed for a long time looking at this question.
- But who has access to the data base? Can you really guarantee protection of files submitted to it?
- Of course, we are not willing to provide everyone with access to the data-base. One or two responsible people have got access to the data-base and nobody else. The access is carefully restricted. Files are protected from copying and it is impossible to sell them. This is not the only case of such data-base implementation at our University. We have been using a data-base for our applicants’ results and we have not received complaints yet. Nobody can penetrate it.
- Today only final graduate issues are obligatory for testing. What are the prospects?
- Prospects are under discussion now. We are willing to extend the system. No doubt, from current year not only diplomas, but all course-papers will be inserted into the data-base. Now that our colleagues are returning from their summer holidays, we will discuss the matter further. But it is clear enough that this should not be limited to diplomas and course-papers.
My proposal is to let professors decide whether they check other written papers on their curricula. Tutors adopt this idea differently and their activity on this matter differs correspondingly. But the final decision must be taken by the tutor only. If a tutor says that he wants some work, essay, report or any student papers to pass through the system, we will approve it as an obligatory requirement for students to complete the curricula successfully. And they must do such testing after tutor’s decision. Maybe it will be possible to include all written papers. But we don’t plan to include intermediate papers and home tests into the checking system. There is no immediate reason to do this, since these papers are less original and important. We will, however, discuss the issue. In any case, all students, including first year students, should be ready for any written paper to be sent into the Plagiarism checking system, if the tutor requires it, and tested with the appropriate possible consequences. Even if there are no universal administrative prescriptions, any written paper can be sent into the system. And our advice is don’t risk it. We foresee the situation becoming more sophisticated but not in a fatal way. We need to invest time and spare no effort. We want students’ original thoughts. I think it is justified.
- Could you estimate the total share of suspicious papers for the current year?
- 15 percent of written papers were defined as suspicious and sent for repeat testing. No matter what correlation norms we choose for procedure. I think there is no fixed percentage share. It will be constantly changing, but the actual figure is not of great importance.
- Is it possible to deceive the system?
- Of course it is possible to overcome any system. And no doubt, there will be students searching to outwit it. And of course some will succeed. But permanent ongoing improvement of the system by the developers is among its advantages. More and more complicated digital procedures are implemented all the time. It is the same situation with infected files and antivirus software where two sides improve each other in permanent competitive struggle. And so to the essence of my message, it is possible to outwit the system once, twice or more, but each time the prospects for punishment increase and one risks being caught at any moment. I would ask you “Is it worth risking?” It is more profitable to follow the honest way, and make a personal decision to avoid any problem with sending papers for testing.
- What measures are proposed for first-time offenders? It might only be a case of incorrect citation.
– Do we separate first-timers from recidivists? There is such division in the General rule. If a first-time infringement is under discussion, a low mark can be the only punishment. We insisted on it. The possibility of other sanctions depends on the tutor’s attitude to the specific situation. But more serious measures must be taken in case of repeated incidents. Each person has the right to make a mistake. But repeated incidents reveal a students inability to study and we must weed out such students.
- Sometimes several written reports are planed by one – week curriculum. Students usually don’t have enough time to fulfill all the necessary tasks...
- We recognize this as a serious problem. But every infringement has an excuse. In this case “volume of work”, “a lack of time”, and “we can’t possibly write tests on our own, so let’s copy” are all used as excuses. But there is one more factor. Regardless of the deadlines, all written tasks all are announced at the beginning of term. Students have been informed of the curriculum tasks in advance. And if it is necessary to submit 5 issues by the same deadline, there is no need to write them all during one single day. There are one or two terms for preparation. All that is needed is good time management skills. I do realize that this is easier to say then to do. The situation is more complicated with day - to – day exams. But written tasks can be prepared in advance. For our part, we try to compose the timetable to avoid any confusion.
- Some students say suspicion is offensive and unpleasant for them. Enforcing them to download written work into Plagiarism-checking system, indirectly tutors and university chiefs demonstrate an attitude to them as bad students and plagiarists. What about “presumed innocence”?
– On the contrary, if we treated our students as unthinking plagiarists, we would not implement this system. We do suppose that there is a minority of such students at our University and that’s a reason to believe that our affair is not hopeless. We don’t suspect anybody. We are willing to implement standard rules. The law-breakers among us are not the only reason to develop state legislation.
By Ludmila Mezentseva, the HSE News service