Saturday, 20 February 2010

Plagiarise – I.

Big and small

Through rose-tinted spectacles, perhaps...

When I was a lad, at school and at university, I never really met plagiarism. I am not sure that I even knew that the word existed until I became aware of the song by Tom Lehrer. No doubt there were sad souls about doing this sort of thing but I just never heard real instances mentioned. This was possibly nothing to do with our all being wonderfully noble, or innocent beings, more likely because of an almost total, universal disinterest in marks or grades (I think that it was not even till my second year at university that I even heard that there were classes in the final degree, firsts, seconds, etc. The topic had just not come up. We went to school and university for many things but getting 'grades' was not one of them, not amongst people whom I knew anyway. Who's to say today that the world was any the worse for it...

One of the features of the culture of my youth, in all sorts of fields, was that, if you were caught 'at it' over something (not just over plagiarism or intellectual property, No Siree!), there was a certain self-regulatory mechanism that often kicked in: shame. One of the worst 'punishments' for being caught at something would be other people's knowing. This could be a very powerful check upon behaviour and, if things did turn out that way, then it was only rare persons who were able to work their way through this and re-earn themselves self-respect and respect in the public gaze, and that by sometimes extraordinary acts of expiation.

A much harder world

Lots of people however, must subsequently have thought just that – that the world was indeed a lot worse for such a relaxed attitude to education. A grim process of commodification, vulgar quantification and managerialism has brought us to a very different place, one manifestation of which is that schools and universities on the one hand, and pupils students on the other, are now all too aware of plagiarisation.

I hear that one may now purchase nippy softwear through which electronic versions of assignments and dissertation are fed. The softwear then searches the Web, marks up all the passages that have been copied from websites, and tells you where the original may be found. Actually, one hardly needs the softwear to spot the phrases, sentences, whole paragraphs, even more sometimes that have been cut and pasted into a text from somewhere else. If you know the field, you can often recognise the particular passage – never more so when you recognise your own words staring up at you. Even in a totally unfamiliar field , the sudden break into literacy is usually indication enough! I suppose that the machine still has its place though: it saves time, not just time wasted in ploughing through text that is obviously heavily plagiarised but in collecting along the way the specific annotation that will be needed if 'procedures' are to be invoked.

Copying is therefore now an exceedingly stupid thing to do, as must be apparent to the stupidest of copyists (or plagiarists, or cheats). Academic handbooks are full of dire warnings of the consequences, teachers and lecturers reinforce these verbally. Yet still people do it, right up to PhD level! 
And beyond. It is not just pupils and students do this. Some teachers and lecturers do too. And people outside, in the 'real world' do it to, Writers, 'creatives', bureaucrats, journalists, public officials, politicians (remember that dodgy dossier' that helped us all into Iraq?). There are laws about plagiarism (intellectual property) that treat it as theft, and there can be swingeing penalties, but still it goes on. There are all sorts of reasons for doing this, according to circumstances: not wanting to do the work, sheer bloody intellectual laziness, self-preservation when into something well beyond one's competence, more innocently, simply not knowing that it might be wrong. Then there is the arrogance of believing that one will get away with it, and the lack of self-respect, and respect for the work of others, that may go with not caring a jot about the real substance of what is being done.

Conductive Education

The world of Conductive Education is part of the real world. I have come across the odd breathtaking example of plagiarism in the sector but at the time I and others involved just let these go. Maybe we were wrong to do so (though we do know where the bodies are buried).

There may be more such biggies than I know of – but I suspect that they are rare. I was prompted to take up this theme by a much more prevalent, much lower background noise of cutting and pasting to create patchwork documents, by taking a sentence from here, a phrase from there. This is probably for the overwhelming part done in all innocence but, all added together, does not serve the benefit of Conductive Education, its public understanding and possibly its reputation too.

I shall return to this tomorrow.



  1. Lehrer sounds like he has a Hungarian accent in the video.

    I remember when I first heard about plagiarism. It was in the early 1990s when I was writing stories.

    Then in 1992, I read about Helen Keller and the court she went through at Perkins School for the Blind when she wrote The Frost King, which was apparently based on, or used material from, The Frost Fairies by fairytale author Margaret Canby.

    (Coincidentally, it was a hundred years since she was alleged).

    And later on, I read in Joseph P Lash's biography that Annie Sullivan may have used it and encouraged Helen to put in visual and auditory bits she could not have possibly experienced or remembered, but could possibly imagine.

    And the smaller scale plagiarising is what Mark Twain talked about:

    Doubtless there are cases of disconnected borrowings from books from time to time.

    It seems that students do not know about paraphrasing and precises, and putting things into their own words and vocabulary.

    Which is the bigger self-regulatory mechanism: guilt or shame?

    And blame also.

    "This could be a very powerful check upon behaviour and, if things did turn out that way, then it was only rare persons who were able to work their way through this and re-earn themselves self-respect and respect in the public gaze, and that by sometimes extraordinary acts of expiation."

    Tiger Woods, for instance?

    I think, also, in these days, people want to be known, and by strangers as well as friends. They will choose the quickest and most expedient way to do so, and often lie, cheat and steal to do this.

    And plagiarism, or the fear of plagiarism, can impede the creation and processing of anything original.

  2. I shall be interested to see how you develop this theme in the world of Web2.0.

    Meanwhile I popped back to leave you this comment: after reading your post, I went off to scan the Observer headlines and found this:

    "When [Gordon] Brown was accused of plagiarising phrases used by Al Gore and Bill Clinton in his 2007 conference speech, the prime minister screamed at a shaking Shrum: "How could you do this to me, Bob? How could you ****ing do this to me?"


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