There's a good lesson to be learnt from plagiarism

18th February 2005 at 00:00
I see that plagiarism is less of a problem here in Tayside than elsewhere in Scotland's universities and colleges. That's good news but it doesn't mean I can relax. Access to the wonderful world of the web has increased the temptation for students to pass off gobbets of someone else's work as their own. While they understand that copying down stuff from a book is stealing, it seems to be harder for them to grasp that stuff on the web comes under the same rules.

The problem can originate with the type of assessment. With the libraries of the world just a finger click away, should we be testing the accumulation of so-called absolute knowledge? In FE, we normally assess skills but there are still units which rely too heavily on a learner's regurgitation of information.

Here you are struggling to engage the learner actively. If you give handouts, you'll get them parroted back in assessment. If you involve the learner in independent study, usually involving the internet, the learner can be seduced by what's out there on the web and you get chunks of half-digested and little-understood material cobbled together.

Mostly our students don't intend to plagiarise. It's just that odd phrases and sentences seem to fly out and stick to them. Unfortunately, they also stick out in an assessment like a piece of fuzzy felt from a "My Farmyard" picture.

Peter's assessment smacked of hard work and a good bit of plodding until, lo, inspiration struck and he described a renovated building as "speculative and scholarly in its reconstruction". Now Peter, my learners are a bit like my children. When my son was learning to speak, I could spot where he had picked up a new word or phrase, spot his vocabulary expanding.

In the same way I know your discourse, Peter, and I can spot a pinched bit from miles away.

The odd phrase is easily ironed out. "What an interesting thing to say, Peter. What does it mean, exactly?"

Peter, nonplussed, will decide that it would be better to change it into his own words, once he finds out what it means. I see that as part of the learning process, not an attempt to deceive.

I have had only one serious case of plagiarism in the past couple of years.

A very smart and capable learner was falling behind in his work and anything he did complete was slapdash and careless. This time I was pleasantly surprised. His assessment, a news report, was properly laid out and submitted with the correct cover sheet and on time. So far, so good.

But . . . hadn't I read this before? A little research of my own revealed a straight download from a newspaper's website. Bad enough. What made it even more galling was that the web report was written by one of my former students.

A formal warning ensued, but I couldn't help a private smile. At least he recognised a properly crafted story when he saw one. At least he didn't steal rubbish. That's a start, isn't it? There's hope for him yet, then, and who knows, maybe one day he'll write something original, something worth stealing.

I continue to lecture my students about plagiarism. I insist that they keep a note of their sources and, starting with entry level courses, insist on a resources list or bibliography. My favourite bibliography came from Emma:

"1. Notes took in class. 2. My own thoughts and ideas."

Plain but honest. Just how we like it.

Dr Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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