Plagiarism or pastiche?

January 20, 1995

The decision by Wolverhampton University to launch an anti-plagiarism campaign is bizarre and not a little brave. Bizarre because everyone knows it is bad to plagiarise -- literally to "kidnap" the work of others -- so why commission 1,000 posters to tell them what they already know? Bizarre too because the famous plagiarism cases of recent years have emanated not from Wolverhampton, but from much grander establishments like Durham and Oxford.

But it is undeniably brave because it represents a bold attempt to face up to a problem which would appear to be on the increase and which is possibly much deeper than many universities would dare to admit. Until 1990, no Oxford student this century had been found guilty of plagiarism and subsequently stripped of a degree. Since then, three have been branded "cheat" -- including two last year. Moreover, a recent survey by the British Psychological Society revealed the startling fact that one in eight undergraduates admitted cheating and plagiarising in their examinations.

Are these just the tip of the iceberg? Very likely. After all, if at Oxford, where else? If one in eight owned up to cheating, what about the ones who did not? And arguably the temptation to plagiarise is greater today than at any time in the past. Universities have developed new examination methods such as continuous assessment, the extended essay and the dissertation -- all of which give ample opportunity for a spot of borrowing. Also the job-hungry student now thinks more in terms of ends rather than means. Grades, marks, results, points -- these are the things which matter to all too many modern students, and the pressure to get them evidently leads the weaker candidate down the path of plagiarism.

Many of the great writers and musicians were themselves plagiarists of the first order. Shakespeare lifted entire plots from the plays of earlier dramatists, Pope followed Horace, and Elvis echoed black musicians. The issue of originality is important and there is no question that learning from others involves an element of repetition.

But if there is a fine line between plagiarism and pastiche, between imitation and influence -- and who will doubt it? -- it is a fine line which must nevertheless be drawn. Wolverhampton should be applauded for making a start.

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