LexisNexis recorded 410 articles about plagiarism in 1994. By 2006 this number had risen to 1,373, suggesting that the issue was swiftly becoming a media-led moral panic. Not surprisingly, this state of affairs has given rise to a great deal of research, from pilot pedagogic projects to cross-institutional surveys. What is refreshing about this book, by the anthropologist Susan Blum, is that the starting point for its investigation is the students themselves.
Blum's study set out to uncover student values, attitudes and experiences. Four undergraduates at US higher education institutions were enlisted to conduct interviews with their contemporaries. Although the total number of participants was just 234, which is statistically insignificant in a country with more than 15 million undergraduates, the author makes no categorical claims but rather seeks to discern underlying issues that might throw light on a problem that haunts all of us working in education.
The student interviews were revealing. Testimonies recounted the whole gamut of experiences: from bandying around quotations via instant messaging and listing favourite quotes (without attribution) in Facebook profiles, to the routine and near-universal disregard for laws of copyright when downloading software, music and films. The research clearly indicates a disconnection between student attitudes to citation and conventions in the academic community.
One of the underlying reasons why students plagiarise with so few misgivings might be attributed to a generational shift in the way they think about themselves. Students are gradually moving away from a preoccupation with identity and "finding yourself" (associated with, say, Catcher in the Rye, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and identity politics from the late 1960s onwards) to a more social self "performed" via the internet and mobile phones, and bringing with it the pressures of 24/7 connectivity. Perhaps for today's students, originality holds less significance than the more pressing imperative of maintaining social networks.
This shifting conception of the self has not materialised out of thin air. Interviewees describe some of the realities of campus life, with its pressure to get the sweatshirt and become a part of the team. Moreover, this relentless ethic of collaboration is reinforced by universities themselves, with a growing emphasis on group work and presentations as part of assessment culture.
Nor is academic work the only priority for students. Also vying for their time is an array of co-curricular social, sporting and voluntary work opportunities for those with an eye trained on building a CV, while mounting levels of personal debt and increasingly grim prospects for future employment suggest the harsh realities shaping students' attitudes. One student talked about a "hierarchy of values" competing for their attention and a "bottom line" mentality about education, in which plagiarism may amount merely to a pragmatic choice.
While this book is based on the experiences of US undergraduates, for the UK reader there is much to relate to, from concerns about year-on-year grade inflation to a preoccupation with university performance data. The American response to plagiarism has been much the same as that in the UK, combining institutional subscriptions to online detection products with a welter of institutional policies and penalties. However, there are some telling differences in nomenclature. While our American colleagues refer to "pledges", "honor codes" and "honesty committees" in language that shoots straight from the hip, in the UK we have opted for the broader definition of "academic misconduct", with its implicit acknowledgement that not all misdemeanours are matters of morality.
Clearly there is no simple answer to such a complex problem, but Blum's conclusions are both insightful and filled with practical ideas. This is a truly absorbing read for parents and teachers, and it will certainly resonate next time you are confronted with hysterical newspaper headlines.
My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture
By Susan D. Blum
Cornell University Press 240pp, £13.95
Published 31 January 2009