Thou shalt honour thy sources

April 14, 1995

Jim Parlour argues that if we are going to lecture students on the evils of plagiarism, we ought to be clear about what it is.

Wolverhampton University has launched a poster campaign to "warn students against the temptations of plagiarism". A January leader in this paper tempered its plaudits for this initiative with the observation that although "everyone knows it is bad to plagiarise", empirical evidence has shown that this offence is knowingly committed by a disturbingly high percentage of students. Greater reliance on assessment based coursework rather than on traditional examinations raises the possibility that this percentage will increase.

What amounts to plagiarism is not common knowledge, especially among first-year undergraduates. When students break rules with apparent impunity we should surely seek rather more convincing explanations than those of opportunism or moral deviancy. What campaigns like Wolverhampton's appear to overlook is that the great majority of students commit plagiarism both because they are unaware of the offence and because its nature is unclear.

Is information on plagiarism, for example, communicated to students at the commencement of their studies so that they cannot later claim ignorance as a defence for non-compliance? If this condition is met we can then consider whether tutors consistently and fairly enforce the rules. Finally, when rules are intentionally broken, do institutions protect the natural rights of students by guaranteeing them an independent hearing at which they have the right to speak in their own defence before penalties are levied?

Consider the nature of the offence. The Concise Oxford Englsih Dictionary defines plagiarism as the act of taking and using (passing off) the thoughts, writings, inventions, etc of another as one's own. In practice this often merely involves a failure to acknowledge source material. The act is often assumed to involve deceit, the purpose of which is to gain unfair and undeserved advantage; in this interpretation the act of plagiarism can also be construed as cheating. But to take this view is to conflate an act and its intention. Whereas in the definition of cheating this conflation is necessary to give meaning to the term, this is not the case with plagiarism which does not necessarily have to be intentional, and even where it is the intention need not be bad.

Plagiarism can take many different forms - the most obvious of which involves copying verbatim the work of others without acknowledgement. This form itself has many variants, from the occasional unattributed use of words of others - an innocuous practice which most of us have been guilty of at one time or another - to the deliberate and extensive copying of whole paragraphs or even pages from secondary sources. The former variant is excusable, the latter, which constitutes cheating, is not.

Where copying is extensive it is usually easy to spot and when detected most difficult to excuse. This is not the case with the second, and probably the most widespread form of plagiarism, which involves summarising or paraphrasing secondary material without acknowledgement. The advent of the wordprocessor, the CD-Rom and electronic data networks, which enable text drawn from secondary sources to be composed, re-composed and customised with ease, is making it increasing difficult to detect and therefore to control this form of plagiarism.

So, in arriving at a set of rules which seek to encourage good practice we should ensure that they clearly differentiate between the forms plagiarism can take. And in putting these rules in place it is vital that students should understand that the problems they face in knowing what an offence is and how best to avoid it are no different from those facing everyone engaged in the pursuit of knowledge.

But students do not enter higher education equipped with prior knowledge of how to attribute sources, ie to reference correctly. Indeed, not only do students not know what it means to reference, they will often have been taught that it is perfectly acceptable to copy and thinly paraphrase work from secondary sources. Having been encouraged to plagiarise for several years they then enter higher education where they are told that this behaviour is not unacceptable, it is, moreover, a cardinal sin, tantamount, in extremis, to cheating.

The inevitable confusion that these new demands cause should be dealt with sympathetically. The great majority of students are willing and able to conform to these demands provided the rules are clearly stated. Guidelines on the correct use, at a minimum, of the Latin and Harvard referencing systems is an essential prerequisite.

Once students have been provided with clear rules on how to reference it is theoretically easy to enforce them by applying a scale of penalties for non-compliance. In practice, however, unless these rules are generated by the students' institution as being sufficiently important to require standardisation across all its awards and, crucially, the mechanisms are in place to ensure that rules are enforced fairly and consistently by tutors, what will materialise is confusion and unfairness. It is manifestly wrong under these circumstances to place the blame for non-compliance on students. If rules vary within and between awards then the message to students is ambiguous and confusing - hardly the basis for encouraging good referencing practice.

If institutions are genuinely interested in coping with this problem they should take a long hard look first at the clarity and adequacy of their rules governing plagiarism and referencing, when and how this information is communicated to students, and most important, if they have effective procedures in place for ensuring that these rules are consistently and fairly enforced within and across awards. Only if the outcome of this self-examination is satisfactory should attention be turned to ways of reinforcing the message to students via advertising and other means.

Jim Parlour is principal lecturer in economics at King Alfred's College of Higher Education, Winchester.

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