Why I...recommend a considered approach to plagiarism

July 26, 2002

At convent school, adhering to the ten commandments was never easy. They had to be rote learned, which was difficult enough. But the details were then unpicked, with terrifying precision. The tiniest transgression might turn out to have been a mortal sin.

Stealing was a particularly difficult sin to pin down. You knew that you shouldn't pinch another pupil's purse or gym shorts, but failing to return a borrowed pencilI was that really stealing? And poaching another's boyfriend? How many of the commandments did that break? Possibly all, bar killing, if you did it on a Sunday, against your parents' wishes, and accompanied by ripe biblical oaths in order to impress.

It was with some astonishment, then, that I discovered in my early adolescence that copying another's homework did not result in my being struck down by a sword from heaven. The trick was not to get caught. Punishment, it seemed, beset only those who failed to cover their tracks. And rightly so. It was a misdemeanour with few adverse consequences. I wasn't really robbing anyone of homework. I was just requisitioning it.

And thus it might have seemed to David Robinson - who was forced to step down as vice-chancellor of Monash University after revelations that he had committed plagiarism - when he began his academic career. Like every other student, he must have read countless tracts on relevant topics and absorbed thousands of ideas formulated by others. Original thought is so tiresome. You can't be sure no one else has had it. Even if they have, good for them. That means there is at least one other intelligent person in the world. And shouldn't they be grateful that you have come to the same conclusions about a subject important enough to require research at university level? Underlining, not undermining. Best not to use exactly the same text, though.

"Borrowing heavily" is one thing - copying verbatim is, well, sloppy. Don't innumerable academics revisit old ideas, including their own? They're just cannier about how they restate them. Robinson described his misconduct as "hasty"; more haste, less speed, might have resulted in his being able to reinvent, more effectively, ideas already garnered on a particularly popular subject.

And therein lies another possible reason for his downfall. Popularity breeds intense interest breeds competitiveness. The area of cultural studies in which he specialised involved writing pieces on "From drinking to alcoholism: a sociological commentary", and "Alcoholics Anonymous: American origins and the international diffusion of a self-help group", not to mention "Drug use and misuse: cultural perspectives". How unlucky is that? Forget the subtitles - added, no doubt, in a forlorn hope that they might intellectualise the topics and make them less attractive to the masses. No chance. Absolutely loads of people are going to want to read them.

Plagiarism has been described as the "cardinal sin of academe" and "a serious violation of scholarly standards". A bit like adultery, then. Most people would do it if they thought they could get away with it. There must be some fundamental rules to follow when lifting someone else's ideas (or repeating one's own in successive research assessment exercises). Here are a few simple tips:

* Title your offerings carefully. "Using offset information to cryptically analyse the ideological thrust of thermal regeneration" is unlikely to attract a wide audience. Most readers will lose the will to live before they reach the end of the title and your wickedness will remain undiscovered * Always have a thesaurus handy. Invaluable when it comes to blagging other people's work * Never accept a vice-chancellor's post without confessing every one of your earlier sins. There's bound to be someone, somewhere, who'll shop you to the Mother Superior.

Valerie Atkinson
Department administrator
York University

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