Gary Day

October 14, 2005

Plagiarism is the ultimate taboo because it lays bare the logic of the world - especially that of our universities

Why do we make such a fuss about plagiarism? Yes, it's an academic offence - but so is higher education policy, and no one drags ministers before a panel and makes them cry. Besides, a plagiarised essay is so much easier to read and it at least shows that the student understands what's required, even if he or she is not capable of providing it.

The definition of plagiarism - passing off someone else's work as your own - is too difficult for an increasing number of undergraduates to comprehend. So you can imagine the problems if you confront them with existentialism. Are they just dim, or is it that they live in a culture where the distinction between an original and a copy doesn't really matter? And what makes us so sure that we can spot the difference anyway, always assuming it exists?

The Mexican Wave would seem to suggest that Aristotle was right when he declared that humans "delight in imitation". Remember when you were young and wore what everyone else wore? OK, I'd rather forget that too. But the point is that it's natural to want to be like other people. If it weren't, Homebase wouldn't exist.

What was it King Louie sang in Walt Disney's The Jungle Book ? Ah yes. "Oh oobee doo/ I wanna to be like you/ I wanna walk like you/ Talk like you too." Says it all really. We bond by copying and rise by imitation - it is, as we well know, the sincerest form of flattery.

But there's more to it than that. Emulation is also the basis of ethics - though not in every instance. The fear a few weeks ago that there might be a petrol shortage gave a whole new meaning to the phrase "all hands to the pump". Which brings me to politics. Can you imagine it without plagiarism? John Major's visions of England lifted from George Orwell; the Iraq dossier; and, most recently, Angela Merkel, the leader of Germany's Christian Democrats, repeating Ronald Reagan's words as her own. Plagiarism is imitation at its most pure.

I suppose some philosopher is now going to say that these two terms are not the same. Well, yes, "plagiarism" derives from the Greek and means kidnap, and "imitation" derives from Latin and means image, but, for all practical purposes, they are indistinguishable. You wouldn't accuse Newcastle fans of plagiarism when they don a Michael Owen shirt (unless you have a death wish), nor would you would level the same charge at Daily Mail readers when they parrot that day's editorial, even though it would be probably be safe to do so. Yet in both cases, someone takes on another's identity or point of view as if it were their own.

What we have here is an everyday example of that deep human need to feel at one with the universe. Its highest expression is the mystic's communion with the divine and its lowest - oh dear, there are so many to choose from - is Stars in their Eyes, a programme in which fame junkies assume the personae of their favourite performers.

We have come a long way from those innocent days when the housewife couldn't tell the difference between Stork margarine and butter; but, looking back, we can see how the deception practised on her tastebuds has led us to the threshold of human cloning. If you can replicate commodities, why not people?

New Labour has already made great advances with its own MPs. In a world of digitalised technology, interactive media, virtual reality and human engineering it doesn't make much sense to talk about originals and copies.

Baudrillard, not Plato, is the philosopher of our times.

It's the same in universities. The bureaucracy of academia may not be designed to produce mind-numbing conformity, but it does. "The trouble with you," said someone to a friend of mine during his appraisal, "is that you have ideas." As regards the individual disciplines, you're not of note unless you quote. Your voice will be heard only if you speak in borrowed accents. "As so-and-so says" must be one of the most overworked sentences in academic writing. I'm as guilty as the next person.

Higher education is a template culture; its purpose is to produce copies.

But we don't want to admit that, so we preserve the illusion of independent thought by making a taboo of plagiarism. Humankind cannot indeed bear very much reality. Instead of penalising students for the crime, we should congratulate them for laying bare the logic of the world in which we live.

Perhaps our greatest desire is to make another responsible for the burden of our being. That would answer the question someone once posed: how is it that we are born as originals but die as copies? Good line that. Think I'll lift it.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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