Teaching plagiarism

November 4, 2005

Showing students how to assess, not produce, knowledge is the way ahead, says William Leahy

It is without pride that I confess to recently having been instrumental in the expulsion of two students from the university at which I work. Both young men were found guilty of plagiarism and subject to the disciplinary panel's decision. Although their cases were clear cut, it still filled me with sadness when considering their futures. After their years at university they leave with two things: black marks against their names and debts that would cause the most affluent among us to flinch.

They are hardly alone. With the enormous increase in plagiarism facilitated by the web, universities need to act. The added problem of students buying papers from essay-writing services confirms this need. One student was recently found to have used the services of such an organisation and was summarily dismissed from the university.

In this case, plagiarism was not detected; the company in question wrote to the university to inform them that the student had failed to pay their fee.

This plagiaristic "heart of darkness" threatens to overwhelm universities, particularly when the added pressures of fee-paying students (and their parents) appear in 2006. One wonders, however, if the universities are making a rod for their own backs in their demand that students produce work according to such stringent criteria.

The typical undergraduate assessment in the humanities, for example, requires students to produce a 2,000-word argument that is independent, original and supported by numerous secondary sources. Many students cobble together something taken from these sources and pass it off as their own.

Plagiarists merely present the secondary sources as their independent work.

However, asking students to produce original work in the first place could be seen as both arbitrary and self-serving on the part of universities. Universities are supposed to provide students with the skills needed in the workplace. But, given current assessment criteria, universities seem to be preparing all students to become academics, producing knowledge through independent and original work. But only a minority of students become academics.

In the humanities, for example, a high proportion of students become schoolteachers. As brilliant as teachers are, their lesson plans are not constituted by original and independent work. Other students go on to do clerical and administrative jobs. With few exceptions, the majority will be involved in the manipulation of knowledge, not in its production, and will rarely, if ever, come across the notion of plagiarism again.

Many would say that as university assessments stand, manipulation - rather than production - of knowledge is the basic skill that is encouraged. Thus reference to secondary sources to support one's argument is required. But why should one have to make an argument in the first place when better, more plausible and rigorously researched arguments already exist? The construction of such arguments and counter arguments is the job of academics; it is what they are trained (and paid) to do. Most students simply do not need to construct independent and original arguments after university. A more appropriate form of assessment would therefore be to ask them to build an argument out of already existing knowledge, irrespective of where that knowledge comes from. Teaching effective and efficient means of accessing and manipulating knowledge rather than how to become skilled in a mode of communication that will never be needed again should be the order of the day. Yes, teaching effective and efficient plagiarism.

As fee-paying students arrive with greater demands, universities might do themselves a favour and reconsider the definition of plagiarism under which they operate. Demanding that students arbitrarily work like academics encourages some to pass off the academic work of others as their own. If inappropriate demands are taken away, then "essays-for-cash" companies might cease to exist. And those two young "plagiarists" might not face such an uncertain future.

William Leahy is director of English studies at Brunel University.

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