Lessons in cheating 1

August 27, 2004

Frank Furedi's comments on Sunderland University's policy on plagiarism ("Plagiarism edict slated", August 20) come as no surprise in the light of his opinion piece of August 6.

Although social scientists should base their opinions on facts, Furedi uses every opportunity to publicise what is merely a conspiracy theory that academic standards are declining because of the commodification and managerialism of today's universities.

In my experience, managers and administrators are more concerned about plagiarism than the average academic, since they are fully aware of the damage it does to an institution's reputation. Their problem is not that too many cases are sent for disciplinary action, but that academics do too little to avoid plagiarism and to detect and report it when it does occur.

What Furedi fails to understand is that the concept of plagiarism is complex and disputed, and even experienced academics disagree about the boundary between culpable plagiarism and sloppy academic practice. Research shows that most of today's students know that plagiarism is wrong but have a poor understanding of what it consists of.

I am as shocked as anyone that Sunderland sets a quantitative measure for what is to count as a minor infringement - let alone a figure as high as 20 per cent. But the university is right to formulate a policy that makes it explicit that students need time and help to acclimatise to academic culture, and gives them the opportunity to learn from mistakes in the early stages.

George MacDonald Ross
Higher Education Academy

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