Plagiarism: an inconvenient truth

When Gloria Monday caught a serial cheat presenting her own work back to her, she thought justice would be swift. But she found that institutional reputation counted for more than academic rigour

February 16, 2009

Working my way through a pile of scripts, I came across a paragraph that sounded familiar. It’s not an uncommon occurrence. You work through an evening, and most of what you read is dull as ditchwater, with the occasional high point as you encounter an essay that is well written and original. There’s also the odd gleeful moment when you discover that you can fail someone outright for having understood nothing. But then you read something vaguely familiar and the alarm bells start to jangle.

I walked down the road to a nearby all-night corner shop to buy some cigarettes and give myself a little break before going back to start sifting through the pile of marked essays to see if there were any direct repetitions. Then I took a look at the course notes and the material made available on the internet, and finally I found what I was looking for.

The student whose essay I was reading had copied whole chunks out of a book he or she had been told to read (there are no names on student work these days, it’s all numbers). Suddenly it dawned on me – the reason the writing seemed vaguely familiar was because it was mine. I didn’t recognise it instantly because I had written it about seven years ago, and when you read your work years later, you are often surprised by the unfamiliarity of what you once said.

I poured myself another drink, then I took a marker pen and highlighted all the passages that had been copied directly. It was an impressive job, I must say: the student had carefully copied and pasted the text, moving in and out of my paragraphs and even offering an original opinion on what he had lifted. I knew then that it was a he, because I knew exactly who had written it – he had expressed the same views in my seminar. (That’s the fallacy of the nameless script – in little groups you get to know everybody, and in even smaller option groups students come and see you about their assignments, so anonymity breaks down immediately.)

Next morning, armed with my marked script, I went to see Brian, my boss, who looked ashen-faced when I showed it to him. A clear-cut case of plagiarism, I told him, and the student had been daft enough to plagiarise my work. But Brian didn’t react as I’d expected him to; he started muttering about our image, what this might lead to and the need for a softly-softly approach.

“Look,” I said, “how can I be ‘softly-softly’ with someone who has blatantly cheated and copied out half of one of my chapters? Am I supposed to ignore it?”

“Well, it might be better if you did,” muttered Brian. He isn’t known as “Brian the Anxious” for nothing – the man is utterly wet.

I controlled my growing annoyance and asked why. Brian burbled on about not wanting to draw attention to negative goings-on in the department because we were coming up for review and needed to appear whiter than white.

“So we condone cheating, do we?” I said in my most sarcastic manner, pushing the evidence into his hands.

He was taken aback. He asked if I had any idea who the student was, so I told him. At this he did another of his anxious recoils.

“Oh, for God’s sake!” he exclaimed. “Not him again!”

Again!? Brian was forced to admit that the student had been caught cheating twice before.

Hadn’t he been punished? Well, of course he had been warned. Warned about what? Well, warned that he might be given a lower grade if he did it again. And was he? Well, he had been given a second warning, an ultimatum, as it were.

“You can’t have an ‘as it were’ ultimatum,” I protested. “Either the man was told that this is the end of the line or he wasn’t.”

Brian wrung his hands.

“He wasn’t, was he?” I asked. Brian nodded dumbly.

So there we have it: a cheat had been caught twice before and no punishment had been meted out. In fact, he must have taken the university’s inaction as an incentive to keep copying.

I stood my ground and demanded that something be done about the cheat now that he had been caught a third time. Brian appeared to agree, and I left his office triumphantly.

But in university life, nothing is certain, not even in the case of a serial cheat. Brian emailed me later in the afternoon to say that according to new regulations, we would have to interview the student to determine whether he might be guilty of “positive deception”, in which case he would get a zero mark, or merely of “non-deliberate deception”, in which case he might be let off a third time.

I decided to throw in the towel, having wasted enough time already. You don’t need a degree to work out what would have happened had we gone ahead with the interview – the case for non-deliberate deception would have been overwhelmingly made, larded with tales of sick parents, stress, economic hardship, high cholesterol levels, incipient dyslexia, emotional trauma, sleep deprivation and heaven only knows what else.

I suppose there is some consolation in knowing that he copied from my book, which a reviewer once praised as the definitive study of a minor religious sect in 17th-century East Anglia. Plagiarism may be the sincerest form of flattery in the end.

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