Friday 15 October 2010

Plagiarism versus cheating


I have come to loathe the word ‘plagiarism’ as it is now euphemistically used in UK universities – where it has served merely to justify the growth of yet another ineffectual but self-serving administrative bureaucracy to ‘address the issue’.

 (To ‘address the issue’ but not, of course, to ‘solve the problem’ – because for a member of the plagiarism bureaucracy that would be to abolish one’s own job.) 

Why not return to the clearer and more inclusive concept of ‘cheating’ – of which plagiarism is only one rather specific and arcane example.


When I went through formal education it was very difficult to cheat.

All of the evaluations for which I was awarded marks leading to qualifications (i.e. O-level, A-level and university undergraduate degree) were done under examination conditions: under the direct observation of invigilators, all of whom knew me.

This was done because everybody realized that if it was easy to cheat, then people would cheat.

First of all the dishonest people would cheat, and when it was seen that the dishonest people either did less work for the same marks or else got higher marks, then the honest people would themselves also be all-but forced to cheat.


The main method of cheating in academic evaluations is to present somebody else’s work as your own work.

 This can involve copying-out someone else’s work, buying someone else’s work, getting someone else to do the work (a servant, boyfriend or bullied victim, perhaps), or (and this is the specific behaviour called plagiarism) using another person’s work without quotation marks and formal attribution.

Due to computers and the internet, all these types of cheating are now much quicker and easier than ever they were in the past.

When evaluations are done without observation, then this kind of thing can happen and will happen.


It has never been easy to detect cheating when work was not being directly supervised, but in the past it was punished very severely, which acted as a deterrent.

In the pre-war era at Oxford, C.S Lewis detected that one of his undergraduates at Magdalen College, Oxford had copied, unattributed, from a textbook to write his weekly essay.

Lewis called the undergraduate to a private interview and made his opinion clear. The undergraduate left the university and was never heard from again.

Yes, really. The student was shamed into self-expulsion: that is how seriously ‘plagiarism’ was taken 80 years ago.


But nowadays, when somebody is caught cheating they are punished mildly, if at all.

Instead of expulsion, the cheating modern undergraduate faces some paltry penalty such as ‘making them do it again’ (gasp!), perhaps with a cap of forty percent on the mark; or (surely not!) a mark of zero!

And what is more, their cheating will probably be kept secret.


The idea of failure or expulsion for cheating is regarded as wildly excessive, indeed vindictive – yet by failing to punish and covering-up for cheating we are directly penalizing honest students.

We are rewarding dishonesty and thereby punishing honesty. 

So why have UK school and university examinations changed such that it is now so easy to cheat, and almost impossible to be caught cheating? Why do we fail to punish or even identify those caught cheating?

Whatever the dark and seedy reason - as a consequence, we are now training educated young people into habitual and systematic dishonesty.



dearieme said...

We once caught a student cheating in course work at an Awfully Good University. I had to go through the rigmarole of chairing a formal enquiry. And was my advice from on high "At all costs protect our standards"? Was it hell. It was "Whatever you do, keep us out of court."

Laban said...

Which may not be the end of the world, if the student's doing sociology or media studies. But bad news if they're doing medicine.

Bill said...

When I began my current job, new faculty were informed at a meeting that the university "takes cheating very seriously." Having been around the block, I inquired whether that meant that there was a long and involved hearing process which would consume a lot of my time. Answer: yes. Is cheating likely to lead to a failure for the course? Answer: that's possible, but the instructor does not have the power to assess that penalty.

So, what the university means by taking cheating seriously is that it will punish the instructor for bringing it to the university's attention and will also punish the instructor for dealing with it appropriately himself and may or may not assess even the most minimal penalty in a proven case of cheating.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bill - Exactly!

By 'taking seriously' they mean 'having a bureaucracy organized around' - which is quite compatible with (indeed works best with) actually making the real problem get worse.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Laban - indeed; but (as a medical graduate) I think it would be possible to return to the simpler old system for professions (e.g. the London Medical Schools - like St Thomas's, Barts and Guys).

This was teaching medicine in big hospitals by a kind of serial apprenticeship, supplemented by lectures and laboratories.

While not ideal, it was much better than what we have now.