Academic plagerism – A Modest Proposal.

Writing in The Guardian on Friday the 16th of March, John Sutherland argued  that students copy and cheat because the circumstances that we have created encourage them to.  

….. who is robbing who? The price of science books, law books, and humanities anthologies, given the captive market and predictable sales levels, is exorbitant. The cost of science journals even more so. Where, rightly or wrongly, the merchandisers of knowledge are perceived to be exploitative, brigandage on the photocopier or at the keyboard is not dishonesty, but Robin Hoodism.

It’s particularly difficult to create an ethos of honesty when big structural changes are happening. Turning students into customers through charging tuition fees is one such change. When lectures, seminars and tutorials are, effectively, ‘sold’ not ‘given’ a bond is broken. Dishonesty is a consequence. There are other ruptures.

One of the perverse triumphs of the National Union of Public Employees in the 1960s was to get a decent wage and benefits package for cleaning staff. Cleaners were, for a decade or two longer, university employees. They belonged. One could think of them as colleagues. Then, in the 1980s, with financial squeezes, room cleaning was outsourced. The work was now done by casual employees, at the lowest legal rate. They did not belong. The incidence of office burglary soared.

There are techniques for enforcing honesty that are less expensive and more efficient than anti-plagiarism software. Desk exams, rather than takeaway papers, or coursework, for example. Invigilation and timed public examination are a pain: but they do keep the student on the straight and narrow. Nor is it necessary to return to the loathed ‘finals hell’ fortnight. A mixed diet of desk and takeaways will show up any anomalies in performance that require investigation.

Some of these suggestions seem to me to be just plain common sense. They certainly should be given more than passing thought. My guess is that because everybody is convinced that the only way of catching plagerists is to use various gismos for idntifying the of the plagerist and devices of watching and listening in on the cheats -gadgets, or “software solutions” as the peroson will call them, that will no doubt cost academic institutions the earth – it’s unlikely that remedies such as the ones Sutherland proposes will be given much consideration.  

The full article is here.


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