What is plagiarism in professional practice and how can it be managed and ideally prevented?

Plagiarism is the concept of presenting other people’s content, words, or ideas as if they’re your own. Often found occurring in educational settings, the practice can have a significant impact if discovered, ranging from severe academic penalties to fines or even expulsion. In schools, colleges, and universities, considerable effort is made to ensure it isn’t taking place, using online tools and systems to check and cross-reference content for originality and correct citation of sources.

The ever-increasing accessibility of online resources enables students and professional learners to usefully obtain endless amounts of material to support them in understanding the context of their qualification and prepare for assessments and coursework. However, this also means there are a plethora of opportunities for content to be plagiarised, without giving suitable acknowledgment of authorship, or reference to other’s work.

In professional learning environments, the landscape is slightly different, but the problem persists. For vocational training, there is an additional cost for the employer if a professional learner is found to have broken the plagiarism rules.

Recently, the rising impact of balancing work and professional studying has significantly contributed to malpractice, as work, lives, development, and health all come under intense pressure. An increasing concern is how this malpractice may relate to the professionalism of an individual in their role, and whether they have the knowledge, skills, and behaviours to do their jobs effectively, following completion of their qualification.

While in key sectors such as police, fire & rescue, and health and social care, students risk tarnishing the profession and harming the reputation of vocational learning for their sector. Consequently, it’s vital that employers delivering vocational training demonstrate and encourage a culture of honesty and fairness and provide adequate opportunities for learners to raise the alarm when they are struggling under increased pressure.

In a study by Ofqual completed in 2019, it was found that nearly half (46%) of all malpractice incidents in vocational and technical qualifications in a single academic year were related to plagiarism by students.

Why is plagiarism so common as a form of malpractice in vocational training?

There are a variety of reasons why a professional learner may consider plagiarism to help them pass assessments or exams. The obvious and conscious choice is to improve your chances of performance, possibly due to the lack of time to conduct research or a lack of consideration for the consequences.

Learners under intense pressure, who may fear failure, are more likely to commit plagiarism as they feel there is no alternative to pass their qualification or assessment.

In some circumstances, a professional learner may commit plagiarism less intentionally, by using excerpts from research or other sources, unwittingly copying content, without referencing it. This ‘accidental plagiarism’ occurs when a person does not cite or might misquote their sources, or inadvertently paraphrases another person by using similar words, phrases, or sentence structure without referencing the original author or source.

Why is it important to support learners who may commit plagiarism?

Delivering vocational training takes a considerable amount of resources, time, and effort, from both the learner and the employer. In the public sector, these demands are intensified with limited budgets, and the strain on services such as the Police, Fire & Rescue Services, and Emergency Services ever increasing.

It’s critical that employers have a pipeline of skilled learners undergoing training to become the workforce of tomorrow. Meeting Government recruitment, training, and apprenticeship targets further add to the weight of needing to have as many trained professionals working to support the public, as possible. Recruitment is already a huge challenge, as seen in the recent Police Uplift Programme, as Police Services battle to meet the Governments’ “20,000” target, whilst continuing to support ongoing learning and development of the existing workforce.

With these added pressures, it’s vital that learners’ progression through training is effective and efficient and enables them to go on to become trusted and highly skilled professionals for the service, for many years. The impact of malpractice on these ongoing demands to recruit, train and deliver means that it’s critical employers and training providers put in the necessary steps to reduce the risk of malpractice and plagiarism throughout a learners’ professional qualification, and any future training.

What can employers do to support those at-risk of committing plagiarism?

There is clearly a range of reasons someone may fall into a position where they are considering committing plagiarism. Once the act is done and has been discovered, there are of course regulations and processes to follow to judge the appropriate penalty for the professional learner.

More importantly, how can employers prevent plagiarism before it’s happened?

A learner who is also in employment may be under increased pressure whilst doing their role and juggling professional learning alongside. It’s vital to ensure there is appropriate support and time allocation for learners to conduct their qualification, not just for assessment, but throughout.

A professional learner may show signs of distress, and therefore appropriate mentoring and support for mental health and wellbeing, as with all staff, should be readily available and ongoing during employment and studying.

A good way of preventing plagiarism from occurring is by providing a network of support to learners. While there is no excuse for plagiarism and it is always wrong, if employers can better appreciate and recognise the demands a professional learner is facing to balance work, life, and study, providing encouragement, then a learner may feel less ‘isolated’ and less tempted to offend.

Practice exams can also be incredibly useful for tutors to carefully assess the level of understanding learners’ have on a given subject, identify areas for improvement and prepare for the real thing.

Ultimately, the more supported and adjusted a learner is, and with adequate dispensations, for circumstances that could lead to them being in a position they feel they need to plagiarise to pass, should prevent and reduce the risk of malpractice.

These good practices throughout vocational training will set the tone for employees as they progress in their careers and, we hope, embrace life-long learning to enhance skills, flexibility, and jobs.

Interested in supporting your learners, and reducing the chance or impact of plagiarism? Watch the SFJ Awards Insights webinar on-demand, with Mike Cunningham CBE QPM.

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