You, sir, are a cad, a cheat and a bounder

September 15, 2006

Call them old-fashioned, but Clive Bloom and John Higgins deplore the blatant plagiarism rife among the Wikipedia generation.

We used to call it cheating: the stealing of somebody else's words by students who were too stupid, lazy or dishonest to think of some of their own. Anyone who would stoop that low was morally corrupt, a bankrupt in a world of values where a gentlemanly code of behaviour towards others meant something, and not playing by the rules was not quite cricket.

It was the worst sort of dishonesty, something underhand and disreputable that was to be avoided at all costs on pain of becoming a social pariah, a bounder or a cad. Such a view makes me sound like a fogey living in an era long passed. We once chanted in the playground that cheats never prosper, but nowadays they do, often putting in more time and energy into copying than into thinking of something original.

If there were to be a new edition of Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas , it would surely have an entry something like the following: "Plagiarism: The effect of technology and student laziness; taking over someone else's ideas as your own; shows resourcefulness." Although the concept of plagiarism extends way beyond the academic proper and slowly becomes indistinguishable from copyright and intellectual property issues in general, its main setting as an aberrant practice remains the university.

We are not allowed to call such behaviour by the name it deserves anymore but must excuse it, find reasons for it, pander to it and forgive it. It is too costly to universities strapped for cash and working within government targets to do otherwise. The whole system is geared towards turning a blind eye to endemic corruption, with the referral practices of most institutions organised so that nothing is done and everything is forgiven by those registries that are meant to be the guardians of the standards by which universities exist and compete on an international basis.

Everyone in higher education has a story about the lame excuse coming down from above as to why little Johnny should be allowed yet another resit, although he has cheated year on year, and why the vice-chancellor's directive on not losing a single student should be the watchword of the exams board. How many of us have finally given up in the face of bureaucratic stupidity and economic pressure and found a way to lower a grade without the accusation that would cause us hours of searching in the library for books hidden behind the radiator? We all learn to smell out the cheat, because the illiterate student of the past suddenly writes as if touched by Shakespeare and has the gift of using semicolons and apostrophes in the correct places.

It is not only Britain that suffers from the disease - plagiarism has crept across continents. It is endemic in the US, despite honour codes and technological gizmos to catch it out. In Spain, in some universities students are allowed eight resits to pass a module, exemplifying the attitude that, despite everything that they might do, no student should ever be allowed to fail and that everyone - the talented and dishonest alike - should, as in Alice in Wonderland , get prizes. For many, it's all a part of the new educational culture in which the student is addressed as a customer, and the customer is always right. As the administrative system becomes the centre of power, respect for "academic" culture wanes. The problem is that in many institutions, it is no longer clear what that is.

We all know by now that the significant increase in levels of plagiarism is one of the unintended effects of the access to information that the web offers. Type in the buzz words and out comes an answer - often from Wikipedia, the online, self-service and cut-price version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica whose influence can be so baleful. More likely the student who cannot afford or cannot be bothered to read books and who has never visited a library in his life will simply hand over his cash to an organisation that will write his essay for him; not quite plagiarism, but cheating nevertheless. It's an instant culture, we are told, and instant answers cost but save you the bother of thinking. Indeed, old-fashioned thinking is the preserve of very few. For the rest it has become externalised on the net, which will literally do the thinking for you. Somehow the task of finding a suitable source online appears to stand in for the work of thinking. In the last case of cheating I had to deal with, the student left the copyright notice at the bottom of her printed essay.

Yet to say students are merely lazy, stupid or in search of the quick fix nowadays is a ridiculously reductive argument. The problem of plagiarism is a moral one, more to do with the fluidity of contemporary boundaries between right and wrong and the wider world of cheating and corruption that insidiously works its way into the psyche through the media. Cheating seems to define the present culture. The ends justify the means even in the most prestigious institutions.

There was the case of Hwang Woo-Suk, the South Korean stem-cell specialist who faked his results. Six other professors were also implicated in the scandal. The High Court was treated to the case of Dan Brown being sued for "copying" by the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail - questions were raised over the motives behind the case as both sets of authors benefited from an increase in the number of book sales as a result of the publicity generated. Then there was the case of Pakistani cricket captain Inzamam-ul-Haq accused of ball-tampering and the corrupt aftermath with the umpire. Yet perhaps most notorious of all were those mysterious weapons of mass destruction or the "45-minute warning", which frightened us into a war. Such falsehoods, prevarications and obfuscating at the very top of our political system set the social tone and poison all below.

Everything becomes permitted as long as you don't get caught. If you do, always have another excuse in your back pocket, but never admit anything. In such an atmosphere truth ceases to have any currency, and all that is left is the interminable "interpretation" of relativism. In a way, plagiarism is the child of such perverted liberalism: nothing is original, nothing is "true"; values float until they can be cashed in.

Hegel is the great common-sense philosopher of plagiarism. Discussing "what people call the unintelligibility of philosophy", he suggested that what this reveals is "a hankering after an image with which we are already familiar. The mind, denied the use of its familiar ideas, feels the ground taken away from beneath it." Authors, he concludes, are found most intelligible "when they speak of things which their readers or hearers already know by rote". They found it long ago in bullet-pointed explanations and in PowerPoint displays and learnt all about it on Wikipedia.

Clive Bloom is professor of English and American studies, Middlesex University. His book Terror Within: The Coming of the English Republic 1649 to the Present is due in spring 2007. John Higgins is associate professor of English, University of Cape Town.

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