Concern for the rules

May 5, 1995

The concern for rules can distort the real problems students have in coming to understand what it is to plagiarise, but what is more important, is what it means not to plagiarise ("Thou shalt honour thy sources", THES, April 14). The latter is of more interest and use to students than the mere following of conventional rules. I entirely agree with Jim Parlour that "opportunism and moral deviancy" is not an adequate and convincing explanation for the incidence of plagiarism. Few students have time for a cheat, it falsely devalues us and the work we do.

Some students may not have a comprehensive understanding of what plagiarism is. However the misconception might not be about the nature of plagiarism, but about what and how we study.

For instance, as a second-year undergraduate, I am not required to submit my own original research, but the research of others. Assessments require that we handle, interpret, relate back and demonstrate an understanding of other people's work all the time. Set assignments constantly ask us to interpret or assess various authors' work with a particular aspect in mind. When suitably inspired, (or not), by our research, it is very difficult to internalise and express, what this or that author's view is on any given topic, without drawing on phrases and ideas that are the hallmarks of that author's work. This requires a particular style that is peculiar to the land of "academia".

It may be that the usefulness of citation and referencing rests, not in honesty, but in helping to underline our ability to distinguish one mode of thinking - someone else's - from another. This demotes the status of the offence to merely poor penmanship.

It is time to challenge the myth that assignment work could be original work. Given that the topics are set around specific criteria, should it not be made clear that there is no disgrace in first and second-year undergraduates putting together an assignment completely lacking original thought or ideas? It would be naive to think any tutor of n years experience, would seriously expect absolutely new work from all their students.

The emphasis on what a student must not do needs shifting to show honestly what academic work really consists of, namely, other people's work. The preoccupation with "rule-breaking" and air of sacrament about academic work, merely promotes a false "mystique" about the art of correct referencing.

It seems that even at stage two, much academic work is just a special kind of copying (a bit like orderly gossip), but with integrity and an eye on the empirical. If this view were promoted, it might dispel some misunderstandings, and make room for more critical thinking. Students then might learn more quickly, adeptly and confidently, how to handle properly, the work of the great.


School of Humanities

King Alfred's College of Higher Education

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