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Friday, March 3, 2006

Don't Waste My Time - A Mini-Rant

In my other life I taught journalism and media at university. Gracepub's post on people passing off classics as their own work and a conversation with her reminded me one of my pet peeves.

Plagiarism is one of the banes of a teacher's life. Stupid plagiarism especially. What do I mean by stupid plagiarism? The kind where you'd have to have your head in the clouds to miss it. The kind where there is nothing to suggest that the student in question has applied even a small bit of brain power to the essay question.

So here's my advice to those students:

  • If you don't speak English very well and turn in a paper of PhD standard, I will suspect plagiarism.
  • If you are living in the UK, but all your quotes refer to the US from an insider's viewpoint, I will suspect plagiarism.
  • If your writing style, spelling and grammar change from paragraph to paragraph, I will suspect plagiarism.
  • If you copy something from one of the set books (which I've probably read 100 times) and try to pass it off as your own, I will find plagiarism.
  • If you copy something from my lecture notes and pretend it's your own, I will KNOW you have plagiarised, since I wrote the original content.

And here's a heads-up: lecturers use Google too. If you can find something to copy by using a search engine, I can find it too. And even the essays that you have to pay for can be found in Google's cache.

Plagiarism wastes my time. When I suspect it, I have to spend a long time searching for the sources, printing them out, marking them on the student's essay and then jumping through the necessary university hoops to prove it. That involves meeting with the student, another colleague, the head of department and the school registrar. All of this gives me less time to spend on reading and research, and on marking essays from the hundreds of other students who have put some effort in and done some work.

I almost felt sorry for one student, though. We set up a meeting to discuss the 'substantial unacknowledged sources' in her work (in university-speak, it doesn't become plagiarism till it's been proven) and she was obviously in shock. It turned out she'd 'borrowed' some work from a friend at another university. And this friend had managed to plagiarise without being caught.

I know that in some cultures copying from the best is normal. I know that some students panic because they feel they don't speak the language well enough to present their ideas clearly. My advice to those students is to talk to your teachers. We're there to help.

I also know that some students approach university education cynically and will make the ride as easy as they can. But plagiarism is taking someone else's content without permission and passing it off as your own. If you did that with my car or my money, it would be considered stealing. 'Nuff said.

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