Plagiarism stems from a loss of scholarly
In recent months plagiarism in the British university has finally
become news. On Sunday, The Observer listed it as one example of
how market forces are contributing to falling academic standards.
Of course, the number of cases of plagiarism has been rising for
Two years ago the Plagiarism Advisory Service was established to
deal with this widespread if unreported problem. And last summer,
a poll of 31 British universities by BBC Radio 4's The World At
One "uncovered" what most academics already knew - that
plagiarism has become institutionalised on British campuses.
The really interesting story is not the well-known facts regarding
the disturbing dimension of cheating but rather its normalisation.
Unable to contain the problem of cheating, the higher education
bureaucracy appears to have opted for the twin-track strategy of
either ignoring it or normalising it. Ignoring the problem usually
takes the form of claiming that plagiarism is not really a serious
Individuals who express concern about the growing problem of cheating
are often dismissed with the statement that they are exaggerating
the scale of the practice.
This laid-back approach characterised the pronouncement of Ranald
Macdonald of Sheffield Hallam University when he recently said on
Radio 4's Today programme that there had been "hysteria built
up" over the issue of plagiarism. As far as I can tell, the
only response that can be characterised as hysterical, comes from
university managers when they react to academics who want to take
some decisive action against a plagiarist.
Of course, ignoring problems is often defined as "best practice"
in management speak and is not confined to plagiarism. Nor is it
as damaging as the trend towards normalising the practice through
trivialising its effects. In the debate that surrounds this problem,
there is a distinct tendency to treat plagiarism as if it is a form
of bad practice, a minor offence or a learning problem. This cavalier
approach towards what was once seen as a gross violation of the
rules of academic behaviour reflects the mood of moral disorientation
on campuses. As the purpose of the university has become increasingly
unclear, academic integrity itself has become compromised. That
is why "experts" on the subject of plagiarism appear more
interested in explaining the problem away than in exposing its root
It is worth looking at how so many of the attempts to account for
the rise of plagiarism in fact serve to excuse it.
In recent years student debt has become a widely used explanation
for the behaviour of undergraduates. Last year's Radio 4 survey
on plagiarism suggested that the increasing cost of going to university
could be the catalyst for the growth of cheating. The association
of financial hardship with plagiarism is based on the patronising
assumption that the poor have lower moral standards than those who
are prosperous. It also represents an attempt to externalise the
problem so that it has little to do with the intellectual and moral
climate on campuses. Financial hardship does not turn undergraduates
into cheats. Discussions with colleagues in different universities
suggests that someone from a financially comfortable middle-class
background is no less likely to cheat than an undergraduate facing
A recently constructed variant of the student debt excuse is the
argument that intense financial pressures are driving overseas students
to cheat. It was reported that at a recent conference at Northumbria
University titled "Plagiarism: Prevention, Practice and Policies",
the claim was made that overseas students who face greater financial
pressures than domestic ones may find plagiarism particularly tempting.
Again, this shift from insulting domestic working-class students
to debt-burdened overseas ones does little to explain why middle-class
students also indulge in this practice. It's not always the economy,
Overseas students also bear the burden of another ingenious explanation
for the phenomenon of cheating. Some experts claim there are cultures
that encourage students to cheat because one way of honouring great
thinkers is through reproducing their work. It appears that a tradition
of uncritical copying makes it difficult for certain groups of overseas
students to understand the difference between their work and that
of others. While masquerading as a culturally sensitive account
of why overseas students copy other people's work, this argument
is based on the insulting premise that "they" can only
imitate while others create.
By embedding copying within a cultural tradition it also sanctions
it as a normal activity. In fact this culturally relativist argument
not only trivialises the problem but also suggests it does not exist.
One keynote speaker at the Northumbria University conference, Betty
Leask, coordinator of International Staff and Student Services at
the University of South Australia, argues that plagiarism is a cultural
construct and that "plagiarism is not a universal principal".
Obviously every form of transgression is a cultural construct. But
if plagiarism is represented as an eccentric practice confined to
outdated British universities, it really does become a very trivial
Then there is the internet. The emerging group of plagiarism experts
frequently point the finger at the internet. And yes, this wonderful
technology facilitates students' ability to plagiarise. But technical
explanations of social and moral problems are highly suspect. One
expects the tabloid press to blame television for the rise of crime
or video games for the growth of bullying. Academics ought to exercise
a degree of scepticism towards such simplistic claims. One does
not need to have a PhD in moral philosophy to appreciate that the
internet does not possess the demonic power to incite otherwise
honest students to pass off other people's work as their own. Nor
does the internet account for the fact that most acts of plagiarism
consist of students copying each other's work.
Probably the most disturbing attempt to normalise plagiarism is
to treat it as a learning problem. At the Northumbria conference
and elsewhere one hears the argument that some students lack the
skills to understand what is meant by cheating. Consequently, numerous
institutions are devoting greater resources towards providing students
with the "skills" necessary to avoid the problem. In reality
undergraduates have a reasonably good grasp of what it means to
cheat. And they become better at it the longer they remain at university.
Contrary to the prejudice that plagiarism is mainly practised by
naive first-year undergraduates, their more cynical seniors in the
third year are far more likely to plagiarise. And the reason for
this is not because they lack the necessary learning skills, but
because they have become all too wise in the ways of the university.
It is when the idealism of the fresh-faced new undergraduate confronts
the cynical practices of campus life that plagiarism turns into
And what can be more cynical than to treat plagiarism as a trivial
issue that does not touch the integrity of academia? When the imperative
of constructing excuses overrides the need to understand the problem
of plagiarism, it is clear that what universities are in fact doing
is accommodating the practice of cheating. This is but a prelude
to accepting the institutionalisation of plagiarism. Is it any surprise
that experts at the Northumbria conference called for changing the
way that students'
learning is assessed in order to discourage plagiarism? Of course
if we stop assigning students essays or, better still, giving them
marks, there will be little incentive to cheat. But instead of confronting
the issue this approach merely evades it.
The real problem is not that students cheat, but that they don't
think that there is anything wrong with this behaviour. In an era
where lecturers are encouraged to treat their students as customers,
academic scholarship loses any inner meaning. The devaluation of
scholarship and ideas means that it becomes difficult to cultivate
the sense of idealism that is associated with the search for knowledge.
If scholarship loses its meaning then plagiarism does indeed lose
moral significance and can be redefined merely as poor work. But
don't blame student debt, esoteric cultural norms, the internet
or learning difficulties. It's the university, stupid.
in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 6 August 2004