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Fear of plagiarism is killing collaboration

Since the inception of my team, we have really struggled with pair programming. We all agree that it is very beneficial, yet at every retrospective we ask why we aren’t pairing more. To be fair, the logistics of having three full-time developers works against us pairing well. I’m also sure we’re all pretty far on the introversion end of the personality spectrum, so pairing is exhausting for us. After a recent conversation with some of our interns at Mentor, I believe I have realized the greatest factor that is killing our collaboration through pairing. It’s the indirect result of an old fear of plagiarism.

Of course we aren’t concerned with plagiarizing one another. That’s not my point. The entire time we were in school (and all three of us have Master’s degrees, so that’s a lot of schoolin’), we got pounded with fear of plagiarism. Every discipline is plagued with an acute fear of the potential for plagiarism, and it manifests in instructors threatening extreme measures given to anyone who collaborates. My interns have told me that there are several courses where if there is any evidence of collaboration in their source code, that they will receive no credit for the assignment and be reported for academic misconduct. It strikes me as even more severe today than when I was in college, and it was bad enough then.

Fast-forward to our current positions at Mentor Graphics, and you see the indoctrination of individualism is alive and well. I’m convinced this deep-seated culture is what is killing our team pairing and collaboration. It’s not that we lack a belief that our work will be better when pairing. It’s quite the opposite. it’s that our natural tendency is to take an assignment-I mean story-from the board and work on it on our own. It was our primary mode of operation for years, so why would it change now?

I know that the role of the university isn’t to train people to do a job, but I don’t see how this benefits academia either. Graduate work always requires collaboration. Students work with their professors to get advice on their thesis and dissertations. Universities routinely churn out papers written by several collaborators. Yet in our course work, we operate in a vacuum where we must work alone. Occasionally there was a course where we had a project which we had to pick a partner or form a team. I always dreaded those because I simply didn’t know what to do or how to work with other people. Out of distrust, I feared being the one who was pinned with most of the work. While these team assignments were rare, at least most undergraduate programs feature a collaborative senior project for a semester or two. Unfortunately, these opportunities are not the norm. The culture instead fosters individualism and students like me need more chances and instruction to become comfortable, effective, and trustworthy in team environments.

As an undergrad, I always enjoyed working in study groups even if I was excelling in the course because the opportunity to guide others helped me master the material (take note that this differs greatly from team projects. In a study group, the outcome of my score was not dependent upon the performance of others). The few semesters I instructed discrete mathematics, I found ways I could encourage students to work together on assignments in hopes they likewise learn better. My key policy for this was the way I graded homework. I never graded for correctness. I merely took note if the student completed the assignment. Then I let the students know they were encouraged to collaborate on the homework because I wouldn’t be grading it such that original work was required. While this did leave open an opportunity for free-loading students to do no work and get credit for completing the assignment, I believe my exams were sufficiently challenging to eliminate any students who haven’t grappled with the homework material. I’m very pleased to report that I often found my students working together on the homework, discovering the solutions together, and teaching one another. Not only do I believe they had a better understanding of the material, I believe I did a better job preparing them for their future careers in software development.

I would love to see a re-examination of how universities are handling plagiarism. I haven’t the faintest clue what the solution to this problem is. I understand the need to protect intellectual rights and ownership. Somehow we need to balance the integrity of the degrees awarded to the individual, while encouraging these individuals to hone their teamwork skills. Again I don’t know what to do about it. I just know that today’s approach to policing plagiarism is creating a very costly negative side effect. It is harmful for both the industry and it can’t be good for academia either.

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Olde Comments
  1. Joker_vD says:

    I’d say the problem is that accusations of plagiarism are applied to tasks and assignments whose goals are not to produce the original result. When, say, you write a Runge–Kutta implementation for your Numerical Methods assignment, the point of it is not to have an amazing RK4 routine in whatever language you’re assigned—the point is to make you understand how to translate formulas into code, and how to test this code to see if it works correctly. Virtually all assignments in CS-related courses I had were not “written”, but of “oral” kind: you didn’t just handed the teacher the program listing and the output on the test data, and a week later he would anounce the grades; you sat next to him, showed how the program works on test data, then show the code, explaining how it was organized and what was happening where, and maybe boasting a bit about some obstacles that you had overcome while you were writing it, and he would also ask some questions, just to be sure that you indeed understand what your code does and how.

    In fact, I have Math degree, and I can’t remember much homework being *graded* when I was in the university. It was mainly handed to let you “fix in memory” what you’ve learned in the class, so there’s little point to grade it—there are three tests during the course of “here’s the list of problems, solve it” kind whose grades mattered. Yes, during *those* tests you were disallowed to ask your mates for help, but even then—the teacher would just say “I hear you talking, but it’s an individual test”, and the murmurs would stop. But to report them to the dean’s office?

    And as for free-loading students not working and getting credit for completing the assignment… well, most of my teachers didn’t care much about attendance. They were pretty understanding, and fair. There are three tests you must pass during the course—what, you skipped two of them? Well, you’ll have to write them during the exam, before you move to the actual exam questions, or maybe a day before the exam date. Yes, this assignment has a deadline, but if you miss it, you may still hand it in later, but bear in mind that you have to answer questions for me to accept it, and I may be absent on days when I don’t teach clasess, and during classes, I prioritize over the students who try to hand in the current assignments, okay? And so on. The lectures and classes are to educate you and help you to learn, and you may either accept this help or turn it off, but the requirements for passing are the same for everybody, so by skipping you only put yourself in a tough spot later.

    • barnesjd says:

      Thanks for stopping by to drop a line! Your university certainly took a different approach than I am accustomed to. I really like your point regarding how with programs you are not particularly trying to produce an original result. It’s quite different from a language writing course, yet the same rules have been applied. As for the instructor sitting with the students to review the code, that is outstanding. I’ve never taught a course with coding (just math courses). I’d like to think I would be willing to give that much time to the students. That could be quite a challenge with the enrollment size of some of the courses.

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