Plagiarism? Don't quote me

24th September 2004 at 01:00
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a student in possession of a deadline must be in want of a website.

Or, to put it another way: to plagiarise or not to plagiarise? That is the question.

Or, from another angle, You're a better man than I am,

By now, you surely will have spotted where this column is heading. (If not, make sure that you do your homework on that much-used corner of the worldwide web known as EssaysRUs.) The universities have had it up to here, they tell anyone who will listen, with cheating students. The new generation isn't even ashamed of it: one of them is apparently suing his college for not catching him early enough.

Schools too lament the opportunities the ubiquitous coursework provides for wholesale plagiarism. This year the usual and totally predictable inquest into GCSE and A-level results have brought us the usual and totally predictable calls for an end to coursework and a return to the status quo of 1956.

Wholly unrealistic - wholly undesirable - as these calls are, those making the pleas tell us: they cheat you know, and we can't stop them.

And in FE? As far as I can see, it gets worse - that is, more widespread - every year. And half the time the students don't even realise that what they are doing is wrong. I recently overheard a colleague trying to get two young music tech students to admit that one had been copying the other's work. The students were indignant. They couldn't have copied: they didn't know each other; they didn't like each other. They were as likely to have sat down to listen to Des O'Connor's greatest hits together as they were to have co-operated on their homework. All right then said the exasperated lecturer, if they hadn't got it from each other, where had they got it from? Well, naturally from a website. The same website. Case solved!

As a teacher, it's easy to get indignant about plagiarism. It's cheating, plain and simple. Black and white. Right and wrong. But just consider for a moment the following scenario.

You are responsible for designing a new course. Your deadline approaches.

Something, you hope, will turn up. By chance you discover that a course very like the one you are charged with creating already exists elsewhere.

On a website, naturally. "That'll do nicely," you declare, neatly erasing the name of the originating institution from the header and typing yours in its place.

Ah, you might say, that is different. Your responsibility is creating a course, not originality. You are not being tested. And anyway, such websites exist because they want you to use the material.

So try this one for size then. That dream job you've always wanted has finally come your way. You're on the long short list, but there's a presentation to be got through if you're to make it to the last four. By chance a friend gave a similar (and very impressive) presentation just the other day. A snip here, an addition there, and with one bound you are free.

Tempted? You bet you are.

You know it's wrong because, like the plagiarist in the classroom, you know it's your work they are looking for, your talents that they are trying to assess. But you also know - unlike so many of the poor hapless students who think you won't notice that suddenly they've turned from duffer into Dickens -that the chances of your being caught out are almost non-existent.

So what am I saying? That we're all at it? I cheat, therefore I am. I ought to be concerned, but frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn?

Perhaps though we should turn away from the moral implications and consider instead the practical. There is another important distinction between the academic plagiarist and the amoral job-seeker seeking to get an edge. The job scenario is a one-off; in all probability it won't matter that your ability to sock it to them from the podium has been exaggerated. (And anyway, isn't all -intellectual - property theft?) "Education," - and here comes the one quotation I do intend attributing - "is that which remains after that which has been learnt has been forgotten." The behavioural psychologist B F Skinner wrote that (though ironically, he seems to have ripped it off from Albert Einstein!) Still, original or not, to one educator at least, this has a ring of truth about it that a quarter of a century in the classroom does nothing to belie. What, then, is the plagiarist left with, other than that piece of paper that he has fraudulently obtained and a belief that the best way to get ahead in life is through cynical manipulation? If education is as much about process as product, what "process" has the plagiarist acquired?

And, on a less high-minded note, if we fail to detect his cheating, we are allowing through to the next stage of learning someone who is manifestly not equipped to cope.

So, matter it does, to all of us. In this regard, no man is an island.

Hey, that's good. I'm glad I thought of it!

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