Coping with the copycat culture

January 6, 2006

We must redefine the blurred line between computer research and theft of ideas, says Susan Bassnett

Plagiarism used to be a word that provoked strong reactions: it was seen as something utterly unacceptable, probably the worst crime a student could commit. Plagiarism meant deliberately seeking to pass off work done by someone else as your own, an act of theft, a conscious attempt to cheat the system. When discovered, plagiarism was severely punished and was viewed as something pretty shameful all round.

That situation seems to have changed recently. People are no longer entirely clear about what plagiarism actually is. My postbag is full of queries about how to define plagiarism, how to avoid being accused of it and what to do about it once it is discovered. Academics are also concerned about how to help students avoid it and whether there is anything they can do beyond the guidelines that their institution may issue on the subject.

Plagiarism is perceived as being on the increase, so much so that many universities have electronic plagiarism detection systems in place.

My view is that the rise in plagiarism is due to two factors: the problems academics face in marking an ever-increasing amount of work as class sizes rise, and the change in meaning of the word "research". On the one hand, as we go towards the research assessment exercise, it could be argued that the meaning of the term is unchanged, but at the same time, from primary school onwards, pupils are being encouraged to "do their own research", and what this means, basically, is downloading information from the internet. Where once they might have looked at reference books, now they download and print out, a practice that is undoubtedly useful in the early stages of learning but tricky when the issue of original thinking comes into play. Unless the plagiarism is glaringly obvious, the sheer weight of numbers often means that there is no time to check out slightly suspicious work and the student gets the benefit of the doubt.

Many of the e-mails I receive are from academics frustrated that they have discovered plagiarism but have been advised not to rock the boat in their department because of the time a full investigation will take. Many people are also frustrated because of the lack of clarity - is buying an essay from the web worse than downloading material that is then used unattributed? Is a cut-and-paste job evidence of a more deliberate attempt to cheat than a wholesale presentation of something written by somebody else?

What is important is to understand the policy of your institution, and if there is not a coherent plagiarism policy in place, start calling for one.

It is vital to have a sense of how your institution views plagiarism. Once you know this, you are in a position to start advising students, helping them to see that what may have been good practice in school is unacceptable at university. My strategy has always been to urge students to over-reference and over-acknowledge, rather than the opposite, as this ensures that they think through the relationship between their own ideas and ideas they have taken from somewhere else.

Many institutions require students to sign a cover sheet declaring that the work they submit is all their own. If you suspect plagiarism, do not allow yourself to be fobbed off by anyone, however senior.

If standards are to have any meaning, then it is up to academics to act as gatekeepers.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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