Are you at risk of plagiarism?
On Friday evening I gave a Darwin lecture in Cambridge in a series on the theme of "Risk". These lectures -- which happen every Friday in Lent Term -- have been going for 25 years now and have become something of a Cambridge institution, with a new theme each year (Serendipity, Survival, Identity, Evidence . . . .), and a vast audience. I was in the Lady Mitchell Hall, which takes 500, and then there was a video link to an overflow hall.
My theme was "Risk and the Humanities", and most of the lecture was actually about how the ancients approached and faced danger -- and how and why the ancients didn't have a "risk agenda" anything like our own. But in the last five minutes I allowed myself a bit of a rant about how that risk agenda in the modern sense had distorted research and teaching in the humanities now.
Grant awarding bodies like the AHRC are so risk averse, that when you apply for money they make you specify exactly what your outcomes are going to be, and exactly what your timetable of research is going to be. Not only is this a complete misrepresentation of how humanities research is carried out (you don't know how long it is going to take you to read a book.. it all depends how interesting you let it be), but it also encourages us all to dishonesty. For the only way sensibly to be able to conform to the AHRC guidelines is to apply for money for research you've already done....that's the dream ticket for risk aversion. There's no problem with the outcomes and you use the research time they pay for to get on with the next project....then in due course you apply for more money to fund that (even though you've already done it).
After the lecture people told me that was regular practice in lab based sciences.
But the other poisonous thing about the risk agenda in universities is that it has started to cast risk in the Chernobyl mode -- I mean as a nasty thing that you can be a victim of, rather than something over which you have responsibility and control yourself.
Take plagiarism: it's ceasing to be the crime of "cheating" and is becoming an appalling academic disaster that can happen to you unawares, without you even knowing you have done it..
If you don't believe me , check out the University of East Anglia, Anti-Plagiarism quiz: Are you at risk of plagiarism?
Naively I thought at first that this must mean, "are you at risk of being plagiarised?" But no, it means "are you are risk of being a plagiariser"? And its 13 questions get over a few key facts on the modern plagiarism/risk agenda. Yes it is possible to plagiarise without realising that you have. And no, fear of plagiarism should not stop you talking to fellow students about your work, so long as you are sensible.
It all made plagiarism sound like a nasty disease you might pick up without knowing -- but one that shouldn't stop ordinary social contact (so long as you dont share a tooth brush or anything silly like that)
And after all, as one of my colleagues pointed out, "plagiarism" actually sounds like a disease; "cheating" doesn't.
For more of this, the lecture will be up on the Darwin College website in a few days.