Cheating pervades our society

June 11, 2004

Your reports on plagiarism ("Plagiarist student set to sue university" and "New breed of detectives fights a rise in copycats", May 28) are illuminating. But we need to discuss it in the wider context of the ethics of our society and what exactly is and is not acceptable behaviour for students and staff.

I have recently been invigilating exams in which a few students were caught trying to cheat, using either old-fashioned crib sheets or the latest in mobile phone technology. And these were law students. But this breakdown in morality applies to institutions as well as to individuals, and it is very evident in the competitiveness that has been forced on universities.

How can we encourage ethical behaviour in our students, for instance, when a major academic publisher sends a leaflet to its authors titled Ten sneaky tips for marketing your book ?

It advises: "Find your book page on Amazon and get friends, colleagues, people who owe you money to put up a glowing review. Better still (and if you are of a slightly unethical persuasion), ask them to put a review up on a competing books page which claims that whilst this book is very good, XXX (by yours truly) may well be a wiser purchase. Amazon will automatically set a link up to your own book from the review, and this will help persuade punters to buy your book instead. Of course, guerrilla tactics like this should be done with discretion and are not for those prone to feelings of guilt!"

There needs to be a much wider discussion of the ethical environment in which students are living and universities operating; otherwise the discussion of plagiarism will remain "technical" and punitive, rather than being situated in a broader context.

Terry Cannon
London

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