Friday, June 04, 2004

More on Plagiarism 

Here is an update on yesterday's story about the the British student suing his university for not catching his plagiarism. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

Michael Gunn, an English major at the University of Kent at Canterbury, could not be reached for comment, but last week he told The Times Higher Education Supplement, "I did plagiarize."

"But I always used the Internet, cutting and pasting stuff and matching it with my own points," he continued. "It's a technique I've used since I started the course. I never dreamt it was a problem."


University officials have declined to comment on Mr. Gunn's situation, but they point out that students are told of the university's ban on plagiarism when they enroll. Kent's Web site features a discussion of cheating and plagiarism that includes the following warning: "There's the chance of being found 'guilty' even if the crime happened accidentally."

Dan Ashley, a spokesman for the National Union of Students, said he was unaware of any lawsuit similar to the one Mr. Gunn is contemplating. But he acknowledged that the number of university students in Britain who plagiarize may be increasing, in part through ignorance.

"We're completely opposed to plagiarism," he said. "But we do understand that there are much greater pressures on students these days and the Internet has completely changed how students research. The key is that if any student is unsure of what the guidelines are, they need to speak to their lecturer."

So here's the scenario. A student does research (e.g. Googles a topic) on the internet. The student then copies text from the internet into their paper. A simple source citation would avoid any chance of plagiarism. The omission of such a citation would have to come from dishonesty. To me the ignorance excuse would only apply if the student somehow failed to realise that he was doing research. But it seems to me that a student could only re-classify his activity if he viewed it as belonging to some other activity: say, deliberate cheating.

There remains an unlikely scenario that the student was never given any intellectual foundation for research activity, in which case he probably should not have been admitted to university. But, leaving that aside, what if the university failed to supply that foundation. Is having a web page enough. What if the student does not visit this page? In America, composition courses (supposedly) introduce students to the forms and consequences of plagiarism. I'm not a great fan of composition courses, but it seems to me that they do play a role as a required introduction to plagiarism issues early in the student's career. This at least provides the university with protection against the ignorance excuse.

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