Of plagiarism, little new can be written
(Schwartz, The culture of the copy (1998), p. 311)

I have gathered a posie of other men’s flowers,
and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own

(attributed to Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592)

“Plagiarism” is defined in various ways. The core meaning seems to be inappropriate copying of another’s ideas or expressions. An important analytical distinction is between:

  • cases where it is appropriate to copy but only if proper attribution is given – the objection is not to the lack of originality but to the failure to acknowledge the source; and
  • cases where copying is wrong even with full acknowledgement of the source – the original author is entitled to be protected from such behaviour, whether acknowledged or not.

There is no legal definition of plagiarism, though it forms part of many academic codes of conduct. The term is often used loosely. Producing one’s own old work as if it were fresh and new is often described as “self-plagiarism”; and two students who hand in identical essays may both find themselves accused of plagiarism, even though the essays may undoubtedly represent the original work of at least one of them. Many examples of plagiarism will also be examples of breach of intellectual property rights, such as copyright or droit moral / droit à la paternité.

Objections to plagiarism are numerous, so much so that it may be doubted whether it should be regarded as a coherent phenomenon. Much that used to be called “cheating” is now labelled “plagiarism”, often confusingly. The attitude of the person whose work is copied is sometimes crucial, sometimes irrelevant. (Submitting another’s essay as your own is objectionable whether or not the true author objects.) There is a modern tendency to define “plagiarism” quite broadly, in some cases extending to any failure to follow the rules of the relevant discipline in relation to proper citation; when coupled with extreme hostility to plagiarism (such as stating, inaccurately, that it is a form of theft) it can sound as if large portions of the student community are being accused of crime.

Many argue that there is now a crisis of plagiarism, even a war against plagiarism. Of course, it has always been the case that some students look for illegitimate short cuts to achieving their qualifications. Various factors are blamed for the modern “crisis”: the growth of IT and publicly-accessible text databases; greater access to university education, with the result that most of those at university are motivated by career goals rather than any particular love of learning (romanticising the past, perhaps?); and the exploitation of commercial opportunities by those prepared to collude in cheating. Others note these same trends but draw a different conclusion. The greater level of access to scholarly material over the Internet ought to be a bonanza for intellectual development, not an occasion for open warfare between students and their teachers; the crisis, if there is one, is not so much a “crisis of plagiarism” as a crisis of how to test core competencies in a 21st century context. If the tests the universities set can be so easily subverted, then perhaps they are the wrong tests. The very difficulties experienced in trying to define plagiarism are evidence of a lack of consensus on what competence consists of and how it is to be established; further, those who condemn “plagiarism” the loudest often seem to have a quite unrealistic idea of the level of originality that can be expected at student level.

Plagiarism by academics is not so much discussed, though there is a general awareness of the issue, and it occasionally comes into the public consciousness if the guilty party is famous enough (see e.g. “Persaud’s plagiarism was dishonesty, rules medical council”). It may, as in Raj Persaud’s case, come to the attention of a relevant professional body; or it might be a matter of university internal discipline (particularly if plagiarist and original author are at the same institution); or there may be a legal action for infringement of copyright. A copyright action is straightforward if text is simply copied without much alteration, but taking another’s ideas and expressing them in a different way can fall outside the scope of the law (copyright is usually understood to protect the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves). Actions in that area are of fabled complexity, and have a low success rate (see for example the Da Vinci Code case, Baigent v Random House Group [2006] EWHC 719 (Ch)).

It is in this academic context that there are complaints of self-plagiarism, that academics are accused of reproducing their own work while giving the false impression that it is new. Whether “self-plagiarism” is really the right term may be doubted. Artificially padding one’s c.v. by submitting the same article to more than one journal is certainly reprehensible, and may in some circumstances even amount to criminal fraud, but is surely a very different thing from copying another’s work. Many academics will have experienced this sort of behaviour, though nothing is likely to happen about it unless it turns up in a job appointment or promotion context. Given the current fashion for weighing up the amount of published research from each practising academic, universities have little to gain and much to lose by asking whether one set of ideas has been stretched over too many publications.

Plagiarism by students, by contrast, has become a major preoccupation of universities. The rise of IT and access to online information, which has coincided with a greater emphasis on marked coursework rather than unseen exams, has certainly created the opportunity to incorporate significant quantities of copied material, where the teachers who set the exercise are expecting original work. The precise objection will vary. Sometimes there is outright cheating involved, as where a group of students collaborate on work meant to be done alone, or where a pre-prepared essay is bought online and submitted as the buyer’s work. Sometimes it is less serious, as where copied material is not indicated as such, or not indicated in the correct  manner; it is often the case that the material could quite properly be included in a legitimate piece of writing, if referenced in the appropriate way. Any detailed university policy on plagiarism must necessarily distinguish between disciplines, as each discipline has its own nuanced attitude to materials that may be cited and how they may be used in argument. But equally, a failure to abide by a discipline’s rules is only culpable if those rules are understood – which leads many to suspect that rampant plagiarism really represents a teaching failure, such that the rules have not been understood or have not been seen as reasonable.

Many say, then, that plagiarism is to a certain extent a cultural problem. Does this mean that it is particularly a difficulty with students whose native language is not English? Some argue precisely this: that on top of the linguistic difficulties that foreign students have (which may easily incline them to simply copy material, their English being inadequate to “put it in their own words”), there may in some cultures be a tendency to regard education as merely learning to repeat the words of respected thinkers, originality being frowned upon. Whether or not there is any truth in this, however, it does not seem to be a useful contribution to the problem. There are obvious difficulties (legal, ethical, practical) in subjecting foreign students to a degree of suspicion that is not applied to home students. There is little incentive for non-English speakers to improve their grasp of the language if they are met with “S/He must have plagiarised, s/he doesn’t speak English that well!”. If the local attitude to plagiarism is not well understood by foreign students, then presumably at least some of the blame lies with their teachers, and so a harsh response is not called for. And we do not confront a situation where foreign students have a radically different attitude from domestic students. It is a more general problem.

If there is a cultural problem, then, it is equally to do with domestic students. Academic horror at plagiarism reflects a set of value-judgments that students do not necessarily share, and the academics’ version of what their students are supposed to be doing assumes a skill set that not all students have. Faced with an intellectual problem to which there is an absolutely standard answer in the literature, how can students possibly make their responses “original”? As Perry Share puts it,

Ultimately what is being asked for in academic work is almost invariably a response to a preexisting body of knowledge, embodied in texts, images or codes of some sort, whether practical, textual or visual. The disciplinary power of preexisting and established bodies of knowledge can make it very difficult for students to achieve any level of expressive freedom. Constrained by an overwhelming consensus over the ‘facts’ and established modes of knowing, students may almost be forced to plagiarise. To devise a way to operate within a disciplinary context, without plagiarising, may be an almost impossible task. (Managing intertextuality – meaning, plagiarism and power, 2006)

(See also Bill Marsh, Plagiarism: Alchemy and Remedy in Higher Education, 2007.)

There may, therefore, be a problem of communication between teachers and learners. But if so, it is not one that can be solved simply by the teachers’ carefully explaining what it is that they expect. The problem is in communicating why it matters, if it does. Most students would find it counter-intuitive to believe that the knowledge they are acquiring is somehow “stolen” from those who developed it, and while it is easy to grasp that there are conventions about how knowledge is reproduced and referenced, it is not so obvious that a failure to follow those conventions amounts to dishonesty. Again, the ability to paraphrase another’s ideas so that the original text is unrecognisable may be a useful skill, but is not obviously an honest one, and it may make no sense to be told that a failure to paraphrase counts as dishonesty.

Academic conventions in these matters are framed on an assumption that is quite alien to most of their students, namely that we are at the forefront of the business of advancing human knowledge. On that assumption, while academic practice varies from discipline to discipline, the need for “academic integrity” is obvious. We need to know where ideas come from if we are to assess their worth; and a sense of collegiality and respect for others engaged in the same exercise makes it natural to give credit where it is due. From this perspective it is obvious that all material that does not come from the native wit of the author should be precisely referenced. But this is not a perspective that many students will share, and it is quite wrong to treat the vast body of students as if they were all academics-in-embryo. One of the most useful, practical skills in dealing with intellectual problems is to find someone who has solved the problem before and to copy their work. (Without this skill, indeed, most university plagiarism policies would never have seen the light of day.) There are indeed other skills which university degrees must teach, and there are also behaviours which must be identified as dishonest and responded to accordingly. But a degree of realism is required.

As it is, plagiarism is increasingly being seen as a disciplinary matter, with an increasing amount of academics’ time being devoted to detecting and punishing it. Matters are evolving. There is an unfortunate tendency both to define plagiarism broadly (as including any failure to follow established citation conventions, even if there is no attempt to claim originality for the cited material), coupled with a “zero tolerance” attitude that insists on a harsh punishment in all cases. There is also a noticeable reluctance to talk of “cheating”, which has the consequence that it is hard to discuss whether the conduct under review is actually dishonest, and whether the blame for it lies more with the student or more with those who should have explained the conventions in language their students understand. There is increasing resort to lawyers on both sides, to no-one’s benefit (except the lawyers themselves, obviously). See “Litigation fear lets cheats off hook”; “‘Plagiarist’ to sue university”.

Much attention has been focussed on plagiarism detection software (notably TURNITIN (website¦wikipedia)), which can take some of the drudgery out of identifying copied passages, and can be a useful diagnostic tool. Such software cannot take the decision whether X is or is not a plagiarist, but it can make the process quicker and fairer. There are some problems which have emerged in its use, though they are relatively minor ones. (Is the database against which checks are made broad enough and appropriate to the discipline? Can former student essays themselves be added to the database, with or without student consent? Will use of the software be consistent and perceived as fair by the student community subject to it?) Ultimately however such tools simply embed academics in the role as policing a body of students who are now treated as potential wrongdoers, rather than as those seeking an education. (For discussion see “A cheat, moi? That’s unfair”.)


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