Friday, February 13, 2015

Austrian term papers clog plagiarism detection system

The Austrian online newspaper reports on a bit of problem with their new high school term paper submission system for the school leaving certificates matura. Pupils in Austria are now expected to submit a 40,000 to 60,000 character long term paper (vorwissenschaftliche Arbeit) by the middle of their last year of school. The paper will be graded by teachers and the students must give a presentation on their work.

Of course, since Austria is well aware that there is a plagiarism problem, at least as far as pupils and students are concerned [not so much for doctoral dissertations, but that is another blog post], the term papers must be checked for plagiarism by a so-called plagiarism detection system.

The due date 2015 is Friday, February 13. Surprise, many students have waited until the last minute, and the system is throwing errors that appear to point to the system being swamped. Apparently, they did not also reckon with such large files as are being uploaded. The server operator noted that they were expecting the files to be around 1 MB, instead they were getting 60 MB large files.

Not to fear - there is a Plan B in action: the pupils can submit a printed version at their schools in order to keep the deadline. Or, as one teacher noted in a comment, submit at 5 a.m. The server runs well at that time of the night.

2013 there were almost 44,000 pupils granted their diplomas in Austria. Teachers will now, in addition to grading these papers, have to wade through the results of the plagiarism-detection software, although they also generate false positives as well as false negatives, thus not determining plagiarism but giving some ideas as to where perhaps there could be some plagiarism. Even assuming that a teacher only spends an average of 10 minutes per paper interpreting the results (and this is generous, as the reports are not easy to read and the numbers reported can be quite misleading), this means a minimum of 7-8000 extra hours of work nationwide, but probably tenfold that.

If the pupils are anything like the ones I see in the first semester, they love to take pictures they found on the Internet to spice up their texts - they are much more visually oriented than the older generations. The software will certainly not be able to identify pictures that are not used according to license, so the teachers will also need to use Google's image search or a system such as TinEye to look for the potential sources, increasing the amount of time needed for grading.

Maybe the idea of a term paper submitted centrally needs to be rethought? Of course, they have to learn how to do research and to write about a topic. But we need to be thinking about how to develop methods of assessment that are plagiarism-proof, instead of adding more broken software to a broken system.

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