Plagiarising Students, or Wiki-style Collaboration?

Plagiarism or just a great example of the new way things are done?

Not content with copying their coursework from the Internet, students, it seems, are now plagiarising their university applications.

A study by the British university admissions clearing house Ucas has found that 5% of student applications had borrowed material to write their personal statements which accompany their applications, according to the BBC. And we’re not just talking lifting a few choice phrases here and there: whole histories are being created. The study found that in these statements, which are supposed to reflect the character and motivations of the applicant:

    • 370 sentences contained a statement beginning: “a fascination for how the human body works…”
    • 234 contained a statement relating a dramatic incident involving “burning a hole in pyjamas at age eight”
    • 175 contained a statement which involved “an elderly or infirm grandfather”.

That’s a lot of burnt pyjamas and infirm grandfathers.

But actually upon closer inspection, I don’t think this is a simple case of lazy and insecure students lifting their statements from elsewhere. Students are merely leveraging the same tools that elsewhere are being lauded as the foundations of citizen journalism, collaborative writing and Web 2.0. Finding their applications being weeded out and discarded not on their academic qualifications but on vague and ill-defined “personal statements”, they’re searching for ways to press the right buttons.

Online of course makes this much easier. A website called Studential.com, for example, allows students to swap stories and information about applying for university, on doing interviews and writing personal statements. It’s not clear who runs Studential, since there’s no ‘about’ page and the domain registration is hidden, but it appears to be an individual. But it’s clearly the source of at least some of “pyjamas” material, since one successful applicant to the University of Bristol began their personal statement in just that way. They then posted the statement in its entirety to the website and have since elicited dozens of positive comments. (The same applicant then posted this on another website forum seeking help on writing personal statements”:

Here’s how I started mine:

Ever since I accidentally burnt holes in my pyjamas after experimenting with a chemistry set on my 8th Birthday, I have always had a passion for science.

Maybe that will give you some inspiration..

Clearly it did. Of course, there’s no condoning folk copying other people’s work, and in particular copying personal anecdotes. (Unless all these folk really did burn holes in their pyjamas on their 8th birthday.) But in other ways it reflects two things, one positive, one negative:

  • the online world favors cooperation and collaboration. Student applicants in a very competitive environment are happy and willing to share their experiences and their material. This is a real community.
  • the online world doesn’t necessarily favor originality, creativity or individuality. We have too much prior information, too much of an idea of what the benchmark and received procedure are, so what we do create tends to be bland and unoriginal.

Did these students feel they were plagiarists when they copied the pyjama episode? Or did they just feel that this was what worked, what was required of them, and then gave it? The system was asking them to come up with a personal statement that pressed the right buttons, and the pyjama button seemed to work.

I’d say the problem is with the personal statement approach, not unoriginal students desperate to do whatever gets them into medical school.

6 thoughts on “Plagiarising Students, or Wiki-style Collaboration?

  1. Actually, Jeremy, it seems like you’re blaming the university’s procedure, when I’d say the real problem is the students’ lack of personal honesty.

    You call this collaboration?

    The students’ unwillingness to make the effort required to actually do it for themselves is evidence to me of the “instant gratification” syndrome that is sadly evident in modern cultures everywhere.

  2. Characterizing this phenomenon as a ‘sign of the times’ either as a positive sign of a collaborative but unoriginal culture, or as an ‘instant gratification syndrome’, is probably off the mark. That it is a bit of pragmatic ‘strategic learning’ in response to the perceived advantage gained, is really a much more likely, and simpler explanation.

    Normally, we would not have any problem with a person, as part of learning, doing something wrong, and finding out that they did. By definition, that is how learning proceeds. The problem here is that the only way they will find out they got it wrong, is to have their application discarded on the grounds of plagiarism. A lesson learned, but possibly a life ruined.

    It raises a few interesting questions: Do we get so squeemish in other areas of life? Or, alternatively, do Universities owe a special duty of care, which might explain why they are loath to immediately, and summarily punish what, after all, is part of learning behaviour?

    The bottom line is: I have been around university students long enough to know that a 5% incidence of palgiarism might well be a historical low. I only wish all plagiarism were so obvious, and amusing.

  3. Robert, thanks for your thoughts on this, and on your blog. I’d recommend reading some of the forums where prospective students discuss the ‘personal statements’ they’re required to deliver. I quite agree with you that students should not copy other people’s material — no one’s questioning that, as far I know — but I don’t think it’s really about ‘earning it’. A personal statement is partly about what the person has done that may be relevant to their application, but mostly it’s about selling themselves — trying to find the right buttons to push that will prompt time-challenged admissions officers to put their applications on the interview pile rather than in the trash.

    The ‘earning’ comes with the marks that the students earn in their exams. The weeding out comes based on something most students have never been properly prepared for: the personal statement. I don’t condone it, but I can well understand why they might resort to using other people’s words which they think might help them better than their own.

  4. Why in the world are universities asking for personal statements with their applications? That is just asking for trouble.

    Common sense tells you that if you have something valuable, and you start giving it out in response to “personal statements”, what you are going to get is spin and more spin. The only surprise is that only 5% of students are doing this, rather than 85%.

    Blaming this on the students is ridiculous. Universities should base admissions on academic results and academic results alone.

  5. I requested a comment from Studential, the website that hosted at least one of the ‘pyjama’ statements, and have received this:

    Thanks for your interest in the site – it’s amazing what one memorable sentence in a press release can do!

    Firstly I’m glad to see how objective most of the press coverage has been – no one has implied the site is encouraging plagiarism and may articles have even quoted parts of the disclaimers to attempt to discourage copying.

    As for the report – it’s a shame to find out people are copying other people’s work and passing if off as their own, especially for a piece of work which is supposed to be considered “personal”. For those who don’t know – the personal statement is the one piece of your university application where you can actually say something as opposed to just listing your grades and qualifications (apart from interviews, but many universities don’t interview). So for all those AAA candiates – it’s a chance to say “pick me” over everybody else – and anyone who doesn’t make the most of this is likely to loose their place to someone who does.

    On the other hand, while in no way condoning it, I can see why people do copy personal statements. For many students, it’s likely to be the only time they’ve written about themselves since “what I did in my summer holidays” back in primary school. It’s difficult to write about yourself, and harder is writing about why you love your particular subject. Most people are enthusiastic about the subject they’re taking -but getting this across in a memorable way in a few lines isn’t easy. I guess some people think they can take their mostly complete statement about themselves and slap someone else’s beginning and ending on it -after all, does burning a hole in your pyjamas really tell you how good a student might be as a potential medic?

    On to the subject of plagiarism – Sharing personal statements is most definitely not plagiarism – this doesn’t take place until the personal statement is copied (without attribution, I should add. Many people start their personal statement with a properly attributed quote – though I don’t recommend it). The purpose of the personal statement library is ultimately to help applicants complete their own personal statements, an often daunting task as I mentioned above. But it shouldn’t be used on its own – we also have a rather extensive guide on how to go about formulating a personal statement, of which “read example statements” is step 5 of 11. The sample personal statements are made available for “inspirational purposes” as one visitor recently put it. It gives potential students an idea of what’s expected of them, and the sort of things they need to write to gain entry to the university of their choice – think of it as studying past exam papers in order to prepare for the real exam.

    Really, Studential isn’t doing anything new: most good secondary schools will provide their sixth form students with sample personal statements from older students, and offer advice and corrections to pupils. Even if schools provide little help, there’s plenty of online services offering similar services for a fee. The difference with Studential is we aim to keep everything as open as possible – all our personal statements are available for free, and users can comment on them and discuss them in any way they wish.

    Ultimately, I feel the benefit to students far outweighs potential disadvantages such as plagiarism. Students who use material written by others in their personal statements are only harming themselves by not accurately portraying themselves. It seems fitting to end with a (slightly paraphrased) quote from the last question in our personal statement FAQ: “And the most important thing? Remember it’s your personal statement, and you can write whatever you want on it. If everything you’ve read conflicts with what you’ve already written but you think you still have a killer personal statement, then use that. A personal statement is about you, and you shouldn’t let anyone tell you what to put – sticking blindly to the formulas written by others will just stop your true personality showing through.”

    Tom Lofts
    http://www.studential.com

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