Fraud is fraud worldwide

February 5, 2009

I don't think Niall Hayes' article on plagiarism is particularly helpful ("A cheat, moi? That's unfair", 29 January). Obviously there is more to a plagiarism "offence" than a simple similarity count, and most universities recognise this in their procedures and offer advice and support to inadvertent plagiarists.

But we shouldn't go down some relativistic, postmodern route here. There is a real issue of old-fashioned cheating, of fraud if you like, as most academics recognise. To attribute large-scale copying of material to cultural differences sounds wonderfully politically correct, but could equally be seen as condescending and patronising. Which educational system, where in the world, seriously advocates copying material and presenting it as one's own?

If the rules of the academic game are clearly spelt out and justified to students in terms of the writing and analytical skills we are trying to develop, and if assignments are properly planned, serious breaches of the rules deserve penalties. This is a way of maintaining academic standards and buttressing the credibility of students' qualifications.

At our institution, students have access to Turnitin software and can pre-test their work before submission. Thus, it is a learning tool rather than something to be feared. They learn how their writing practices need to change, and that they have little excuse for high similarity counts. Of course, very clever students could use a pre-test to enable them to subtly rewrite material and pass it off as their own, but this is more difficult than you might think. Perhaps it is a useful skill in itself: such students might make excellent journalists.

John R. Shackleton, Business School, University of East London.

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