Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Access to scholarly journals in Macedonia

The Ministry of Education in Macedonia announced that it had signed an agreement with a British company to make fifty international journals with "impact factor" available, or electronically accessible to Macedonian scholars. The list of journals can be found here: http://www.mon.gov.mk/novosti/741--impact-factor. First, I would like to applaud the Minister for his effort to make accessible to Macedonian scholars literature on which all scholars rely on for their research. I looked at the list, and many of the titles are familiar to me. I still would like to raise some questions about this project.

  1. Why only fifty? Is it a matter of cost? How did the Ministry decide on which fifty journals were needed by Macedonian scholars. 
  2. Did the Minister conduct a survey of Macedonian scholars and based his selection on what they needed, or did he simply look at some list of journals that were rated with the highest impact factor? Does anyone remember the fiasco with the project to translate hundreds of textbooks into Macedonian? The project still continues, but a word of mouth tells us that hardly any of these textbooks are actually used in Macedonian universities. The list of textbooks to be translated was put together by the Ministry without consulting the professors in the field. Some have suggested that the Ministry should conduct a survey to find out where in fact these books are used, and the Ministry has refused to do this. In my opinion, because they may not want to see the results. Will these journals suffer the same fate?
  3. All of the journals on the list are in English, most likely because they are publish in an English speaking countries. Are there no scholarly journals with "impact factor" published in other languages? Should scholarly research published in other languages not be considered by Macedonian students and scholars? Is the Ministry assuming that all scholars in all fields in Macedonia are fluent in English? 
  4. Will this effort not lead to more plagiarism, something that the Ministry wants to abolish with it's recently announced software? Will this not give students and scholars easier opportunity to simply translate research into Macedonian and submit it as their own? Is the plagiarism software capable of detecting translated plagiarized texts?
My advice to the Minister on this and other similar topics is that if he truly wants to improve scholarship in Macedonia first he needs to liberate himself from the "impact factor" myth. To do so, first someone needs to enlighten him that "impact factor" in scholarship is nothing but a myth. There are many, many scholars in the world who conduct extremely significant research in a field where there are perhaps only couple of dozen other scholars doing similar research. Their research is published in journals with very small circulation. Should their work be considered as any less significant simply because the journal doesn't have the impact factor of Nature, New England Journal of Medicine, Psychology Today, etc.?

Relying on the "impact factor" myth to improve education and scholarship can only result in a myth that once Macedonia imports journals with "impact factor", the country will begin producing educational institutions and scholars with "impact factor".

The Minister of Education needs to be aware that generally speaking Macedonian scholarship and the Macedonian system of higher education is in terrible, terrible shape. Before even thinking about putting the system on the "impact factor" track, many other political, organizational, ethical and social changes have to take place first. The system needs changes from the ground up with the effort of all stakeholders, not just the ministry of Education

Monday, May 9, 2011

Can the problem of plagiarism in Macedonia be fixed with software?

Today (May 9, 2011)  Minister of education Nikola Todorov announced that the Ministry has commissioned new software to detect and fight plagiarism at Macedonian universities. I discussed the issue of plagiarism in Macedonia in another post. Here I would like to comment on the Minister's approach to the problem.

First, there has not been a public announcement or discussion about the nature of this software, such as who is developing it, what standards will be used, etc. As an aside, I am familiar with many information technology projects in Macedonia that received wide media coverage, and at the end they never saw the light of day, or the end result was totally useless. My personal opinion is that this new software will suffer the same fate, mainly as a result of the government's total ignorance of the root causes of the problem.

Here is how the Minister describes the project. The system will work with texts written in Macedonian, Albanian, English and other languages. So far so good. All scholarly works in the possession of the Ministry of Education will be archived in the system. The system will also include all student seminar papers, final graduation papers, masters theses, dissertations, textbooks, and all other scholarly research papers and projects. The system will become functional in six months! GOOD LUCK!

First, let me address the technological hurdle. I assume that whoever received the grant to design this system has convinced the Minister that they can duplicate Turnitin, the most well known plagiarism detection system. Is the Minister really so naive to believe that duplication of Turnititin is possible based on the available experience and resources in Macedonia? Here are some statistics from Turnitin:

  • 150+ million archived student papers
  • 90,000+ journals, periodicals & books
  • 1+ million active instructors
  • 14+ billion web pages crawled
  • 10,000 educational institutions
  • 20+ million licensed students
  • 126 countries

All of this can be duplicated in just six months and at the cost of only twenty-thousand euros?

There are three forms of plagiarism prevalent in Macedonia: copying form previously published texts, paying someone to write the paper, and submitting an entire work (paper, thesis, dissertation, etc.) that has already been submitted by someone else. Although plagiarism of the second and third type is quite rare in most western country, it is quite prevalent in Macedonia. I think probably the Minister's aim was to fix the problem with the third type of plagiarism, which does nor require enormous technological knowhow. However, is the Minister really aware of what kind of resources are needed to archive ALL electronic media? Is he really not aware of the kind of resources available for such projects to Google and Turnitin? Twenty-thousand euros just ain't gonna do it!

Let's assume that the initial archive will consist only of texts in the possession of the Ministry of Education, and the archive will be continuously built up with new texts (seminar papers, scholarly papers, etc.). As far as I know, currently there is no legal basis in Macedonia to require authors to submit their works to this plagiarism detection system. Although this Minister would probably have no qualms about proposing such an amendment to the current law on higher education, even though such a law will most likely be in conflict with the law on copyrights. Let's suppose such a law is passed. Is the Minister not aware of the practical hurdles in archiving such documents?

The Ministry of Education probably has some good statistics on the number of theses, dissertations and scholarly papers published in Macedonia and has figured that it won't take much of an effort to archive them. But let's talk about student seminar and graduation papers. I don't know how many students are enrolled in universities in Macedonia, but 80,000 is probably a conservative figure. Let's say each semester about 20,000 are required to write a seminar or a graduation paper. 
  1. How will the submission of their papers be handled practically?
  2. Will each professor be legally required to require students to submit their paper?
  3. Will there be a fine for professors who don't obey?
  4. Will there be a fine for students who don't obey?
  5. Who will be in charge of controlling students and professors to make sure they have obeyed, and what kind of resources are needed to do so? Will each faculty need to hire an individual responsible for controlling and maintaining the paper submission process?
  6. Will there be seminars and workshops for students and professors where they can get instructions on how to submit papers?
As envisioned, this software will probably be quite capable of discovering exact, or almost exact copies of papers in its database. At my home institutions, as well as at other universities in the US plagiarism also includes:
  1. Quoting another person's actual words, complete sentences or paragraphs, or an entire piece of written work without acknowledgment of the source; 
  2. Using another person's ideas, opinions, or theory, even if it is completely paraphrased in one's own words without acknowledgment of the source;
  3. Borrowing facts, statistics, or other illustrative materials that are not clearly common knowledge without acknowledgment of the source
More complete definition of plagiarism can be found on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plagiarism). I'm just not convinced that a twenty-thousand euro software can be capable of detecting all of these types of plagiarism.

Here are few more important questions.
  1. What happens when an individual has submitted and is discovered that he has plagiarized a thesis or dissertation? Is he simply told to go back and write another one? And what if it is discovered that the second, and third, and fourth versions have been plagiarized as well?
  2. What happens if it is discovered that a professor had plagiarized a paper, thesis or dissertation 5, 10, or 20 years earlier?
  3. What happens to a student who has plagiarized a seminar paper? I noted in a previous post that I had the experience at a Macedonian faculty where ALL students in a seminar had plagiarized their seminar papers. Remember, according to the system of student assessment in Macedonian universities, students don't "fail" a course, they pass or fail exams, which they can retake as often as they please until they pass them. There is no legal procedure where a professor can say to a student, "Your paper is plagiarized, you fail the course, you must repeat the entire course." There is also no legal way for a faculty to punish repeat offenders by dis-enrolling them from the faculty for a period of time. So, students risk very little if they plagiarize, and at the end the risk is really worth it.
In his announcement Minister Todorov also says, "With the development of this software this decades long problem in higher education should stop." Minister Todorov and all educator in Macedonia should be aware that plagiarism is not a problem only in institutions of higher education in Macedonia, but for decades it has been part of Macedonian educational culture. It's prevalent from pre-school, first grade, and so on. If there is an easier way to write a paper, and if the person responsible for assigning and controlling the written project doesn't really care much, and if there are really no significant consequences, then why bother putting in the effort to write something original. My personal opinion is that all this is a result of the fact that generally speaking in Macedonian culture there is very little respect for knowledge and self-improvement. Parents, who should be most responsible for educating and enlightening their children, are also most responsible for promoting a culture of favoritism, cheating, and plagiarism.

My point above is to point to the fact that, contrary to the Minister's statement, plagiarism is not a problem only in institutions of higher education. The seeds of plagiarism are planted by the parents, and teachers in primary and secondary schools don't make much of an effort to weed out the problem. This is the reason why by the time a student enters the university the problem is really too large to handle with a 20,000 euro software. 

So, do you really want to fix the problem with plagiarism in higher education? 
  1. Start fixing the problem with the parents.
  2. Start fixing the problem from pre-school and first grade. Educate teachers on how to recognize plagiarism. Don't require individual teachers to be responsible for punishing offenders. That will most likely lead to bribery. Rather have each school organize a committee consisting of teachers, director, parents, etc., decide on the punishment. Make it clear at the beginning of every school year what the rules and consequences for cheating and plagiarism are and really stick by them.
  3. Have the Minister assign someone at the Ministry of Education to gather documents form US universities on how they handle issues with plagiarism. You'd be surprised how well the rules work. I can tell you this from my own personal experience. I teach literature courses where students are required to write papers, and almost every semester I get one or two students who have plagiarized their papers. But after the plagiarism is discovered, and the student's parents (who are paying tens of thousands of dollars for their education) find out, and the student is forbidden to attend classes during the following semester, you can be certain that, that student will never plagiarize a paper again.
Plagiarism at universities can be rooted out within one year if professors and administrators really want to put in the effort. With the help of Google it takes me no more than five minutes to detect if a text has been plagiarized from some online resources, which is the most prevalent way that students plagiarize. Universities must have very strong and enforcible policies against plagiarism. Students should NEVER be given a second chance to write a paper in place of one that has been plagiarized. The minimum punishment should be repeating a course in which plagiarism has occurred. The next level should be dis-enrolling the student for one semester and for one year. The highest level of punishment should be dis-enrolling the student from the university forever. Plagiarizing a thesis or dissertation should require the highest level of punishment. The student should be dis-enrolled from the university forever, and the offence should be noted in the student's records. After one of these happens to one or two students, you can be sure that it won't take too long for others to realize that plagiarizing is just not worth the effort.

Finally, Minister Todorov should be commended for recognizing the problem and for trying to do something about it. I have yet to read any practical and successful solutions proposed by educators or by educational institutions. It is just unfortunate that the minister is attempting to solve this problem in a way that is certain to lead to failure. Rather than focusing all resources in detecting plagiarism, more effort should be put in making sure that it doesn't take place, or at least is reduced substantially.