Still struggling with plagiarism
Some time in the mid-1980s, when I was a lecturer in Dublin, I came across an essay I was marking that had all the hallmarks of plagiarism: the paper drifted between inarticulate banalities and then, suddenly, beautiful writing with intelligent analysis. Its referencing was suspect. And its passionate argument for a particular legal reform did not sit easily with the views of this student as normally expressed in class.
Anyway, I called in the student and told him that I suspected plagiarism and asked him to comment. Almost immediately he admitted the offence, and then proceeded to tell me how he had gone about it. In order to find sources with which I might be less familiar, he had travelled to a university library in Canada (where he had friends), and there he looked for materials that were in more obscure books and articles; then he had taken passages from different works to hide his tracks.
At this point I asked him whether it wouldn’t have been much simpler for him just to do the work properly, rather than take all this immense trouble. He agreed that this was a reasonable question; but he then added that he had learned much from the materials he had plagiarised, and that they had broadened his outlook.
Of course the opportunities for plagiarism have grown exponentially as people got access to the internet and its vast resources. But the tools for detecting plagiarism have also become more powerful. Chief of these is the program Turnitin, which compares submitted text with a huge databank of materials and then offers a conclusion as to whether there has been plagiarism. But as this product became more and more effective, its developers offered a rather different product for students: the program WriteCheck advises them as to whether their essay or assignment may be breaking the plagiarism rules. This has prompted outrage on the part of at least some academics.
I wonder sometimes whether we are allowing our fears of plagiarism to overwhelm us. Clearly plagiarism is wrong, but it is not life-threatening. Students who plagiarise may be hiding the tracks of their inattentiveness or, occasionally, modest talents; but they will have spent at least a little while opening their minds to the materials they are abusing. Turnitin has given academics some means of monitoring what is going on, but now WriteCheck is accused, by some, as an insurance policy for students against the risk of plagiarism detection.
I strongly doubt that our world will collapse as a consequence of this. And while it is important that students understand that plagiarism is not acceptable, we should not become paranoid about it. There are other things that should have a better claim to our attention.
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