What do you do about plagiarism
The radio psychiatrist Raj Persaud admitted “inadvertent plagiarism” of colleagues’ books and articles and last week was suspended for three months by the General Medical Council for the offence.
Allegations of fictional plagiarism – whether it’s Ian McEwan or Dan Brown (fictional enough, after all) – are often the stuff of news stories. In fact, one of the commonest ways to attack the commercially successful has always been to claim that the big name author has nicked his plot from some neglected and impoverished scribbler. The originality of Mrs McCain's cookie recipes has obviously been causing some trouble too.
It is less often that academic plagiarism makes much of an impact outside the academy. Allusive allegations remain buried in prefaces and are the stuff of late night conversations at conference bars. It tends to be a no win game on both sides: the supposed culprit looks cheap and dishonest, the complainant tends to look petulant and armed with an axe to grind. Mud sticks everywhere.
It hasn’t often happened to me. But when, years ago, I saw a report of a lecture given in the USA, using material that I was pretty sure derived directly from work I had done and talked about in a lecture of my own, but not yet published – the feeling was rather like having your handbag gone through by an opportunistic thief. The temptation to pursue it was enormous. By and large though, in most cases, it is probably best to shrug shoulders and forget about it. (It’s rather like a bad and unfair review – however much you want to write and object, the wise course is put up and shut up.)
Students though don’t have that privilege. The more they are examined on course works and dissertations, the more plagiarism (and its dastardly variant ‘self-plagiarism’) replaces simple cheating as the crime they most fear being accused of. Some I know are dogged by terror of the “inadvertent plagiarism” that Persaud owned up to.
I have no idea what Persaud thought he was doing. But the truth is that most student cases of traditional plagiarism (I mean good old-fashioned copying, rather than buying essays off the internet) are usually inadvertent – and glaringly obvious.
Shaming as it is, plagiarism in the old style is usually a consequence of mindless diligence. It happens like this: stage one, the innocent culprit takes copious notes (actually huge quotes) from a book or article; stage two, a few days later, said culprit copies out great chunks of their own notes (which are, after all, in their own handwriting) into their essay – probably unaware that they might just as well have down-loaded the book without the intermediary process of note taking.
It is also almost impossible not to spot. As you read the essay through, you instantly sense when you move from undergraduate prose to that of (say) Sir Ronald Syme. And it doesn’t usually take more than 30 minutes, and a bit of common sense, to pin down the exact source.
What do I do then? Well, in a regular weekly essay, I don’t usually take them to the cleaners. If you start an hour’s supervision with an accusation of plagiarism, you’ll most likely spent 45 minutes mopping up the tears (such are the high stakes of this particular crime).
Instead I insert quotation marks around the offending paras and I write in the margin the exact source including page numbers – and write something slightly tart at the end.
It almost always does the trick. Perhaps someone should have tried it with Raj Persaud.