Sat Jun 5, 2004

Plagiarism

Teresa Nielsen Hayden takes a contrarian line on a story about Michael Gunn, an English student who got caught for plagiarism but is now suing because claims he was not informed it was wrong and was shocked—shocked—to be told it was. “I hold my hands up. I did plagiarise. I never dreamt it was a problem” says the guy, “but they have taken all my money for three years and pulled me up the day before I finished. If they had pulled me up with my first essay at the beginning and warned me of the problems and consequences, it would be fair enough. But all my essays were handed back with good marks, and no one spotted it.” Teresa says:

My first reaction was “Nice try, kid.” On second thought, he does have a point. It’s not enough of a point, but he has one.

I don’t think he has a point.

Teresa argues that (1) Students don’t read the rulebooks, (2) Handbooks are crap anyway—”a mixture of hot air, vague benevolence, pious wishes, counsels of perfection, slabs of prose copied from earlier handbooks, stern warnings inserted by the legal department” which produce only FUD, and besides (3) If he’s a serial plagiarist “Kent University is not only entitled to feel embarrassed about it, but is arguably obliged to do so. They should have known.”

Well, it would be nice if ignorance of the rules—especially rules written in dry, boring statute books—was a defence that you could sell to the local Circuit Court Judge. “Your Honor, I never knew it was illegal when I shot him. I should have been told in a snappy and accessible PowerPoint presentation, is all I’m saying.” I’m more sympathetic to the argument that the University should have caught him sooner. It’s not clear from the news stories just how good a plagiarist Gunn was. As I’ve written before there are different kinds of plagiarism and students with different kinds of goals. Certain combinations are difficult to spot. Google plagiarism is usually easy to spot, as Teresa says. Obviously weak students who turn in brilliant essays arouse suspicion. The sadly more common (because more stupid) phenomenon of weak essays suddenly growing brilliant paragraphs is also manageable. But other types are harder. The worst is the student who does not want to get more than a C or a B minus and who plagiarizes from some private stock, such as the papers in a drawer at the Fraternity House or equivalent. You can fight this kind of plagiarism indirectly by setting precise essay questions and not recycling them. But students who cheat intelligently to attain middling results are difficult to catch and more common than you might think. Just because it takes a long time to catch someone doesn’t mean they should be allowed to get away with it.

Teresa asks, “Has there been a revolution in student handbooks since the 1980s?” that makes them interesting to read. Of course not. But there has been a minor revolution in teaching practice. Students are now routinely informed about plagiarism in many different ways, whether via handbooks, the syllabus, talks from the instructor, declarations on cover sheets or warnings from advisors. They used not be. So while further details about the story might make me shift the balance of blame—if it turned out that he really was the very easy-to-catch type and the University were just on autopilot, for instance—my third thought is still “Nice try, kid.” Besides, if we had to tell students everything they aren’t supposed to do—cheat, lie, kick the professor, set their classmates on fire—we’d be here all day.