Friday, 4 March 2011

I know what you did last semester

Feel like bringing down the Government or at least a prominent member thereof, but not too sure you’ve got the stamina for all that full blown revolution malarkey, what with all the shouting and the shoe waving involved? Maybe you’re claustrophobic and the thought of waiting round in a square with thousands of other people for hours on end causes you to hyperventilate, hey, you may even have a job to go to. Well fear not, because now you too can do your bit for the cause and the only thing you’ll need is a red pen. 

On Tuesday, German Defence Minister, Baron Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, resigned his Cabinet position, following accusations of plagiarism after his Doctoral thesis on the origins of the US and EU constitutions was shown to include significant amounts of text copied verbatim from other research papers. Guttenberg, who has proven to be a headline writers dream, is yet to answer allegations that he also plagiarised his own name from that of a villain in an unpublished Sherlock Holmes adventure

Barely days later it came to light that Saif al-Islam, the son of the only human being currently more mental than Charlie Sheen, Colonel Gaddafi; had apparently plagiarised his PhD thesis at the London School of Economics back in 2008. LSE are currently investigating the legitimacy of al-Islam’s work and state that they retain the power to revoke his degree if he is found guilty of plagiarism. Taking no chances however, the university’s director has already resigned, which gives a bit of an indication as to the way this one may go.  

I’ll go out on a limb here and state that plagiarism probably isn’t the worst crime either Gadaffi junior or senior have committed this week and nor is it likely to knock, ‘avoid capture and imminent death’, from the top of their list of current priorities. But nonetheless it’s an inconvenience and one that represents a new threat to the reputations of public figures, namely the validity of their academic record. 

So what is plagiarism? Surprisingly, for a relatively simple concept, what constitutes plagiarism remains the source of some debate. Traditionally plagiarism has been thought of the process whereby an individual passes someone else’s ideas or work off as their own, and for the vast majority, especially those in academic institutions, this remains true today. Increasingly however, this traditional view has come under attack by those who dispute the validity of plagiarism as a concept. When last month German author Helen Hegemann was found to have copied entire passages at length from a lesser-well known book into her critically acclaimed novel Axolotl Roadkill, she responded somewhat brazenly: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity”. This followed news in October that the Supreme Court of the Philippines had allowed one of its magistrates to submit plagiarised material, some of it from Wikipedia, in a major trial, stating only that the party involved had: “at times suffered in formatting lapses”

In primary school, as with many things, it was all so much clearer: you either used your entire body to shield what you were writing from your classmates, so diligently that not even a NASA satellite would be able to read your unique take on the nine times table, or your work got copied; simple. If you failed in your task and your classmate got a glimpse of your work, you cried out “Miss, he’s copying!” in shrill monotone, and after a brief telling off the whole charade started again. But at least then everybody knew where they were: there were the plagiarisers and the plagiarised and no conflation between the two. You didn’t hear little Johnny arguing, after being caught copying somebody else’s answers for the fourteenth time that day, that he found the entire notion of intellectual property inherently flawed did you?

Nowadays, the internet has changed the game and despite the advent of anti-plagiarism software, the sheer volume of data available online means that cheats have become increasingly hard to spot, as was proven in the case of both Guttenberg and al-Islam. After all, both men were awarded their PhD’s at the time, and only had them challenged subsequently following what we can only assume is a great deal more scrutiny than most students received, no doubt due to a desire from parties unknown to discredit them from their political positions. A recent article on the BBC website sensationally titled: Plagiarism: The Ctrl C, Ctrl V boom, offers examiners tips in spotting plagiarism in students’ work: “You might notice a sudden variation - from good language to bad, from academic tone to journalistic tone. The pronouns go from single to plural, a sentence is cut off in the middle, or a strange reference to Australia appears”, says Judith Carroll, author of A Handbook for Deterring Plagiarism in Higher Education; although if the strange and inexplicable reference to Australia is anything to go by, we may suspect Ms Carroll of copying this passage from elsewhere too. Furthermore, what the article neglects to mention is The Guardian’s recent report which revealed the extent of “churnalism”, or wholesale reproduction of press releases without verification that goes on in the media at large.

So there it is: it’s becoming increasingly hard to know whether the material we read has been written by the stated author, or merely copied from another source. I may have simply cut and paste this article from an even more obscure blog. You’ll never know. But beware, because as nobody else has ever said before: there’s always someone, somewhere with a big nose, who knows, who’ll trip you up and laugh when you fall. And with that in mind, choose you least favourite public figure, start trawling through their old-schoolbooks, hope to find some irregularities and watch them come tumbling down.


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