plagiarism

[Update 30/3: the end of the exposed plagiarist story]
There have been a few cases of plagiarism of the cut-and-paste from the web variety by students at our department, and luckily the university has very clear routines for how to handle it. If an exam paper or paper submitted for assessment in a portfolio is suspected to contain plagiarism, the person grading the paper may not grade it but instead sends it on to a committee with an explanation of what the problem is and the committee decides what is to be done. The student also has the opportunity to explain him- or herself. I believe the committee has a lawyer and a couple of student representatives on it, which seems fair. If the student is found to have plagiarised, the exam will be annulled and the student may be barred from taking exams at any university in Norway for one or two semesters, depending on the gravity of the plagiarism and how advanced the student is. Obviously it is seen as more serious if a grad student plagiarises than if a first semester does so and there’s reasonable grounds to think it might be a misunderstanding.

As a grad student I taught a little in other departments and once graded an exam paper where 2/3 of the paper was cut and paste from the net with no sources given. I reported it to the person who was responsible for the course, but was told to simply fail the student. The next semester I heard from other teachers that the same student had done exactly the same thing in another class, and thinking it was the first time it had happened, they hadn’t reported it either. Imagine what we teach students if we allow them to plagiarise their work?

All the cases I’ve come up against in Norway so far involve students who wrote in English, which was a second language for them, or foreign students who struggled to write in Norwegian. That may have made the cut and paste sections particularly visible to their teachers. Perhaps there is just as much plagiarism in essays written in the student’s first language, but the paragraphs are translated or better integrated so that teachers don’t notice.

I was amused by this exposÈ of an American college student who foolishly asked a comedy writer to write an essay for her. He accepted, found out her real name, wrote a cut-and-paste essay he assumed would be detected as plagiarism, wrote it up on the web, and sent an email to her Dean.

Of course, it’s not really amusing. It’s tragic for students who are banned from taking exams for a year of their lives. It casts the whole system of portfolio evaluations and grading into doubt, because there must be so many cases that aren’t caught. And yes, even scholars plagiarise – the Vice-Chancellor (equivalent to the rektor in Norway or the President in the US) of Monash University in Melbourne resigned after having been found to be a “serial plagiariser” in the seventies and eighties (he’s now getting a top job in academia again). It is entiredly possible to imagine an academic community based on sharing ideas freely, but as long as each individual academic and his or her institution gain or lose financial benefits and scholarly respect directly based on publication and citations of said publications, plagiarism will be the academic equivalent of embezzlement. Students’ plagiarising is a slightly different issue. Yes, it threatens our perception of the academic system of publishing being fair and natural. It also threatens our system of giving grades and degrees. Finally plagiarism threatens the whole idea that university and college students are supposed to be learning something more substantial than how to game the system and get a degree.

Most of all I’ve discovered my own fury when confronted with plagiarism, though. They think I’m stupid not to see through this? How dare they waste my time like this? Why on earth would I put effort into doing a good job as their teacher when this is all they think learning is worth?

I think we need to be strict and very consistent about plagiarism.

29. March 2005 by Jill
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