Wikipedia: a no-go that could see students end up with a zero

T-Mag Saturday 15/June/2019 08:56 AM
By: Times News Service
Wikipedia: a no-go that could see students end up with a zero

Nasser had only joined university a few months ago, and was excited by the opportunities it provided him.

Here was the chance for him to follow his passions, and make his dreams reality. A few weeks ago, Nasser and his classmates, fresh into their first year at university, had submitted their first ever assignments.

They’d worked hard at it, well into the wee hours of the morning as they sipped steaming cups of tea to fuel them through the night. They were expecting good grades, but when Nasser and his friends all received the same email in their in- boxes a few days ago, they were surprised.

Their professor had found evidence of Nasser and his team lifting material from Wikipedia for their assignments. Fresh into the world of university education, the group felt their thoughts swirl as they entered a quandary over what to do next.

They timidly knocked on their professor’s door, expected to hear and face the worst. But he was a man with many dec- ades’ worth of experience. Experience that had made him kind and understanding to their plight. Nasser and his peers were new to university. It was a fresh challenge for them, and their prof decided to go easy on them. After all, with plenty of new hur- dles to jump over, it is possible that they would’ve forgotten the cardinal rule of not taking subject matter from Wikipedia to write their assignments.

Nasser and his friends would have to redo their assignments, but that was as bad as it got. Heaving a sigh of relief and thankful that their punishments weren’t any more severe. Nasser’s name may be fictional, but his story is true.

Across Oman and the rest of the world, thousands of university students directly lift information from Wikipedia and enter it into their assignments, hoping they won’t get caught. The cleverer ones might visit a thesaurus or look up synonyms for every word in their assignment, but make no mistake, universities and colleges in Oman have enough tools at their disposal to detect instances of plagiarism and lift- ing work from sites such as Wikipedia.

While Nasser and his friends might’ve gotten of lightly, make no mistake. Di- rectly taking things from Wikipedia for your assignment can result in you receiv- ing a straight zero on your assignments, or worse.

To find out how universities in Oman detect instances of plagiarism, T Weekly spoke to university and college professors in the Sultanate of Oman about the use of Wikipedia to fill students’ assignments.

Dr Saqib Ali is the Head of Department of Information Systems at the College of Economics and Political Science at Sultan Qaboos University.

SQU’s policy on students who plagiarise work from Wikipedia and other publicly available sites is simple. They will be awarded a zero on submissions that show plagiarised work. At orientation, and at the beginning of every year, students are told that using Wikipedia and other such sites is strictly against university policy, and those who do use these for academic purposes will be penalised accordingly.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and SQU will definitely hear students’ side of the matter before they make such decisions, added Ali, but the general policy of the university is that students who are caught plagiarising work from Wikipedia would be handed a zero on their submissions.

“At SQU, our academic policy is very clear,” said Ali. “Academic curriculum must be that which enables students to develop proper cognitive and logical reasoning, not point them in the direction of just copying and taking things from easily available online sources. It is part of our academic procedures to inform students about the consequences of taking information from sites such as Wikipedia.

“Any student who is caught plagiarising information from Wikipedia or any other site will straight away get a zero on that assignment,” he added. “Of course, we will hear out the student because there may sometimes be some exceptional circumstances that we did not know of previ- ously, but otherwise, there is no chance for them to resubmit this assignment once again. They will straight away be awarded a zero.”

Students reading this article while looking for an easy way out of their assignments, or think that Dr Saqib Ali is a dinosaur set in his ways are to be sorely mistaken. He holds both a Master’s degree and a PhD in computer science from La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, having worked in IT and computers for the major portion of his professional career.

He has also published a number of papers into not just improving the quality of cybersecurity, but making sure that accessing technology is made easier for people, particularly those who may not be as familiar with it as those of the current generation. Dr Saqib is living proof that nothing comes easily, and those who do coast through life looking for an easy ride are going to have a tough time of it later.

“If there is a job that has to be done, it has to be done properly,” he told T Weekly. “Otherwise, there is no point in doing a job. Even if you escape by lifting materials from Wikipedia, Quora and other publicly available sources of information at university, sooner or later, you will get caught. If you are not found out at university, then your workplace will find out.

“If you are found out at your workplace, that is far worse, because then they will take the appropriate action which could see you out of a job, and once the word spreads, then no company will hire you because they will know that you got your degree through unfair means, while others worked hard to get their qualifications,” added Ali. “If you have just lifted material from these sources, it means that you did not learn the skills you were supposed to learn during your degree.”

Dr Saqib Ali’s advice to students to not use Wikipedia was not unfounded. Most universities across the world including Sultan Qaboos University – use plagiarism detection software such as Turnitin to find and root out instances of plagiarism inside academic submissions.

The same was agreed upon by Eliott Wright, Director of Pathway Programmes at Muscat University. “Universities should have their own academic regulations and procedures

to ensure this doesn’t happen, such as the use of software such as Turnitin,” he explained. “We use trained and skilled teachers who can detect plagiarism, but most importantly is a rigorous academic integrity policy and academic misconduct process.

“Yes, software to detect this does help, but students should be briefed about plagiarism and academic integrity in orientation and in student handbooks,” added Wright. “However teachers and academics need to constantly inform students on their programmes and get students to understand why they shouldn’t plagiarise.”

Such software are designed to work as plugins alongside the online academic framework that universities set up for students to hand in their submissions so that the professors who grade such work will know that the content they are seeing is not entirely the hard work of the students, but instead contains the efforts of others that these students have taken, simply because it is often easier to take someone else’s work and pass it off as your own.

“We have software such as Turnitin and Page Leaks to check whether students are indeed plagiarising the work that they have submitted, and the software works in tandem with our online setup,” explained Ali. “The software works in such a way that it scans the submission, and then marks those areas which it believes have been lifted. But even without this soft- ware, if we see a student’s style of writing change from one paragraph to the next, then we obviously know it has been lifted.

“Also, if we see a sudden increase in a student’s grades and we know the his- tory of that student, then of course, we will have suspicions over that as well,” he added. “We know that students work hard, but if we feel that something is out of place or does not seem alright, then we will definitely enquire about that student.”

T Weekly also spoke to lecturers at Al Mussanah College of Technology, where Al Mahanad Al Badi worked as an English language instructor. He said that his insti- tution also has a very strong policy against students using Wikipedia and similar sites. Students at Al Mussanah who were found lifting matter from Wikipedia would be asked to redo their submissions.

While there is much debate online – and across the world – as to whether Wikipedia must be banned on college campuses so that their students are un- able to access it, Mahanad disagrees, sim- ply because the internet can be accessed from practically anywhere today. To block it across a university’s internet plan will only encourage students to access it from elsewhere, thereby defeating the purpose of dissuading people from using sources such as Wikipedia in the first place.

“I don’t think Wikipedia should be blocked, because people need to know what constitutes proper information,” he admitted. “I am not with the idea of unnecessary censorship of data, but the students should develop their ability to pick and choose what is appropriate and what is not.”

“It is not a way of punishing them but a way to learn what is acceptable and what is suitable. It is for them to learn what academic practice is and what is not,” explained Al Badi. “If they repeat this action again, we see their resubmitted second drafts, but then they cannot change it, because this is after the teacher has done for them a few revisions and provided feedback. We end up as teachers, seeing their sources, and how they summarise and paraphrase from these sources.”

He worked with students in his class to ensure that their sources of research were ones they had found themselves, not lifted from Wikipedia and other open- source sites. He said: “If they ask about using Wikipedia, we will tell them that this is not acceptable, so we will ask them to go back and find other sources. I ask my students to bring me their sources, so that I know they are not made up, and if these are on- line links, I ask them to email them to me. I check these articles by myself and then I give them the green light. Then I look at what is reliable and what is not.”

Students who were found using Wikipedia would be asked to redo their as- signments, and the college also employed detection software to ensure that no plagiarism took place.

Al Badi added: “Finding sources is a learning process. It’s not like I am going to punish them but if I do find that you have used Wikipedia, then I will give the as- signment back and ask you for a resubmis- sion, because the student needs to learn that using Wikipedia is not acceptable. The student needs to know this so I will ask for a redo.

“We also use Turnitin to check for plagiarism and if there is anything cited either directly or indirectly from Wikipedia, this software would recognise it, so when we submit it, we will show them that this is where the source came from,” he explained. “Even if they mismatch their sources, we can recognise that this particular source does not belong to the data mentioned.”

However, irrespective of what professors, lecturers and teachers in Oman and the rest of the world say, the debates around whether Wikipedia as a legitimate tool for research and academics will always rage in a thousand online forums and in rooms around the globe.

It is best then, to attempt to put this matter to rest by asking Jimmy Wales himself, the founder of Wikipedia, what he thinks of his site being used for aca- demic research.

Wales had previously spoken about this at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center about whether Wikipedia was a legit source of research. Wales went so far as to even justify his reasoning with an example of the last time he’d been founding using lifting information directly from an encyclopaedia.

“This question of students relying on Wikipedia as a reliable source of information is always kind of funny to me,” said Wales. “I get at least one e-mail a week from some college student who says ‘please help me. I got an F on my paper because I quoted Wikipedia,’ and I always write back and I say, ‘for God’s sake, you’re in college, why are you quoting an encyclopaedia?’ I got in trouble in the ninth grade for quoting Britannica, you know?”

Wikipedia delivers “good enough knowledge,” said Wales. “This is your starting point, not your ending point.”