I had an interesting series of coincidences last week. I live in the east of Singapore, and I teach at NTU which is on the west. Thus, twice a week I take a 45-minute cab ride to campus, care of Grab.  As is often the case the driver will ask me if I teach at NTU, after which we will get into a discussion on the education system, what his children are studying, and more than often than not, New Zealand.

Thursday’s cab ride was no different, and it was to my delight when the driver mentioned that he had played rugby for Singapore, was off to 7’s and was at the World Cup final in 2011. I shared the story behind Stephen Donald and wrote down the movie that he had to watch, that documented his rugby story that was now part of New Zealand legend. I was also able to share that the director Danny Mulheron used to be a postie and worked with my brother, before explaining yes it is true that we all know each other in New Zealand!

However, before getting on to the topic of rugby, he spoke to me about the topic of companies that were producing essays for students, that he had heard while listening to BBC, and asked me what I knew about such matters. I explained that depending on the university one was teaching at around the world this could be more or less of a problem. He said he was unaware of the problem before the radio show, but in hindsight, it is not surprising given the nature of supply and demand. The question is what the Universities and lecturers must do about it.

Coincidentally, there was an article in Nature this week that also alluded to the problem. Turnitin, the plagiarism detector that most Universities use was sold, with the writer of the Nature article questioning its usefulness.

Having used Turnitin for years now, I have found the software to be improving continually, and the software regularly picks most aspects of plagiarism relatively fast. I can also use this for my research papers to ensure that I have not inadvertently failed to cite a paper that is the basis for my opinion.

The author makes a point about academic integrity, a point which, while valid, is not the point of this short blog. Rather, in terms of dealing with plagiarism, I think that universities need to start marching into the 21st century and in doing so reduce the opportunity for plagiarism to occur.

Plagiarism occurs when students are required to write essays that account for an excessively large portion of their internal grade. If this practice were reduced plagiarism would not have an opportunity to flourish. By using other assessment methodologies such as class presentations, with peer input on the grade, short quizzes, and class participation in discussion, we reduce the opportunity for plagiarism. While this may require a change in the approach taken by many disciplines this approach is key to limiting the opportunity and impact of plagiarism and factory-essays to flourish.

To not link plagiarism and the requirement for essay writing is to akin to the gun debate that New Zealand so quickly addressed (not to of course compare the severity of the two issues). You can address a problem at it is core, which is not to deny the obvious merit of increasing the academic integrity of students. Rather, the initial response should be simple solutions that can be adopted first to eliminate the opportunity for such practice.


Weber-Wulf, D. (2019) Plagiarism detectors are a crutch, and a problem. Nature 567, 435, doi:10.1038/d41586-019-00893-5