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March 1, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Copy Paste Plagiarise

Thou Shalt Not Steal.” It might only be the eighth commandment in the religious sense, but it’s the number one rule in tertiary education. First years and post-graduate students alike are reminded not to plagiarise others’ work with every assignment of every paper. Acknowledge your sources, identify their ideas, and for god’s sake, never use another’s words without attribution or modification, or there will be consequences. And yet, recent events suggest that this isn’t as common knowledge as one might think—and that the temptation to Copy-Paste is as great for lecturers as it is for students.

Dr Danny Keenan, a former associate professor of Maori Studies at Victoria University, was accused of plagiarism in his 2009 publication on the Maori land wars, Wars Without End. The Sunday Star-Times reported that entire passages of Dr Keenan’s book matched, almost exactly, those in Landscapes of Conflict: A Field Guide to the New Zealand Wars, written in 2002 by historian Nigel Prickett. Although three of Prickett’s works were referenced in Dr Keenan’s bibliography, Landscapes of Conflict was not among them. Wars Without End was withdrawn and reprinted with the appropriate amendments, but it was not enough to salvage Dr Keenan’s academic reputation: he announced his resignation from Victoria University in January of this year.

Dr Keenan is the latest in a string of academics, journalists, and authors to have succumbed to the temptation to use another’s words in place of their own. In 2005, John Manukia jeopardised his fourteen-year career in journalism when it transpired that he’d plagiarised, as well as fabricated, features published in the Herald on Sunday; presenter Noelle McCarthy was reprimanded by Radio New Zealand in 2008, after “disconcerting” similarities were discovered between her essays and articles printed in British newspapers; and it’s been suggested that a story Pamela Stirling wrote for the New Zealand Listener in 2003 was more than inspired by Gregg Easterbrook’s work in the American magazine New Republic.

More recently, author, academic and national icon Witi Ihimaera was caught dipping his pen in another writer’s ink; a considerable blow to his reputation, as well as that of his employer, Auckland University, and his publisher, Penguin, who also published Wars Without End.

An Inconvenient Truth

While reviewing Ihimaera’s 2009 novel, The Trowenna Sea, for the New Zealand Listener, Jolisa Gracewood encountered “phrases and paragraphs that [were] somehow out of kilter with the surrounding text”.

Upon Googling the subject of the novel, she discovered compelling evidence that Ihimaera had cribbed from author Peter Godwin, academic Karen Sinclair, and works edited by Charles Dickens—among others. Once confronted with the evidence, Ihimaera was deeply apologetic, but veered between grovelling (he had fallen “in love with [the other writers’] language and phrasing”) and trivialising (his plagiarism was “inadvertent”) in his communication with the media.

Auckland University’s Dean of Arts, Associate Professor Jan Crosthwaite, was reported by NZPA as saying that Ihimaera committed “no deliberate wrongdoing”. This has proved to be contentious. Asked whether plagiarism can ever be considered to be unintentional, Alan Samson, a lecturer of Journalism at Wellington’s Massey University, replies that it’s impossible to give a “one-fit answer”.

“All you can do is look at each case and make a judgement,” he says. “And part of that process is judging degree. Some plagiarism might be considered minor, some very serious indeed.”

Gracewood is more sceptical of Ihimaera’s defence that his crime was unintentional. “It’s easier to plagiarise, thanks to the internet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easier to accidentally plagiarise: you always know when you’ve cut and pasted something, surely. Otherwise you’re not a very good reader of your own work, or of other people’s.”

Ihimaera’s solution to the furore was to purchase the remaining copies of The Trowenna Sea from Penguin, and to publish a revised edition of the novel some time in the future—although Penguin’s publishing director, Geoff Walker, has indicated that this is not an immediate prospect.

“I can say that it won’t be this year.”

Samson considers Ihimaera’s response appropriate. “He made some silly statements after being confronted, but his actions are a clear acknowledgement that he is contrite, and wants to put things right.”

On the contrary, Gracewood is quick to note that it’s not clear that the remaining stock was, indeed, bought back. “Someone should be able to do the numbers, and work out the original print run, and that the number of books that were sold—given that it sat at the top of the bestseller list for a couple of months.”

Moreover, Gracewood—who has a doctorate in comparative literature from Cornell University in the United States—sees this to be besides the point. She believes that The Trowenna Sea needs retelling, not revising, and that Ihimaera should “set aside the research and tell the story in his own words”.

Until then, she maintains, “the novel is not a success on its own terms”.

“Plagiarism, at its root, means kidnapping. And this is a novel about a real historical person who was transported to Tasmania,” Gracewood remarks. “It’s pretty rich that his story is told, in part, via words that were lifted out of their original context, without permission or consultation.”

The Appropriate Response

The one-two punch of Wars Without End and The Trowenna Sea has “been a tough time”, says Walker.

“It’s embarrassing, and Penguin wishes it hadn’t happened.

“The publisher tries to pick up this sort of thing, obviously, but plagiarism is very difficult to detect. There needs to be a significant change on the page in the author’s style for it to become apparent.”

He’s quick to point out that it’s the author’s responsibility to ensure that their work is, in fact, theirs.

“In the publishing contract, the author specifically guarantees that the text of the book is original,” he says.

“I’ve found that some authors are surprised to learn this, even when their contract spells it out.”

Walker anticipates that Dr Keenan and Ihimaera will act as examples to others.

“I can only hope that all writers learn from their cases, and become even more scrupulous about first systematically documenting their research as they write, and then acknowledge their sources when they’ve completed their work.”

Auckland University, at which Ihimaera is a Professor of English and a Distinguished Creative Fellow in Maori Literature, used the author’s claim that “less than 0.4%” of The Trowenna Sea was comprised of plagiarised material to defend their decision that the case did not “constitute misconduct”.

Gracewood doubts the relevance of that figure.

“Neither the author nor the publisher seem to have a clear idea of how much unattributed material the novel contains. Each time they admitted full responsibility, I found more examples.”

She has listed passages that she’s “pretty sure aren’t original”, but that she hasn’t yet managed to place in their original context. “It does beg the question about what the numerical threshold [of plagiarism within the novel] is, if there is one at all.”

On Auckland University’s website, Vice-Chancellor Stuart N. McCutcheon disputed claims that a student in Ihimaera’s position would have received a more severe punishment: “The University does not condone plagiarism, but recognises the need to take into account a range of factors, such as intention, seriousness, and extent.”

Samson agrees with this restraint, and considers the university to have acted fairly: “I don’t believe all plagiarism should be dealt with in the strongest manner. Every case is different.”

Others are not so forgiving. In an interview with Radio New Zealand, respected author and professor emeritus of Auckland University C. K. Stead was vocal in his criticism of the response to the scandal, and accused the faculty of having double standards: “You reject students’ essays for doing this, and you fail them in exams for doing it. It makes you wonder what the title of a distinguished professor means in the University of Auckland”.

Stead is not alone in his view that of all people, academics should be familiar with what defines plagiarism. Talking to the Sunday Star-Times on Dr Keenan’s unauthorised use of his work, Nigel Prickett said “academics have a bigger responsibility [to not plagiarise]… because they are the role models”.

Samson agrees: “More than others, they have been taught from the start about the importance of attribution and referencing.”

Lecturers, tutors and other academics also have a great deal more to lose from being found to have plagiarised in their work.

Gracewood asserts, “in academia, one’s professional good name is the coin of the realm”. She points out that if your paper trail of research is less than transparent, “you’re making it hard for people to follow in your footsteps in good faith. In other words, by embezzling other people’s intellectual currency, you debase the value of your own.”

Victoria University Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Professor Deborah Willis, says that while “Victoria University does not tolerate plagiarism by students or staff”, the institution’s investigation into allegations of Dr Keenan’s plagiarism could not be commented on, as it is a “personal employment matter”.

Muddy Waters

Victoria University’s Assistant Vice-Chancellor Associate Professor David Crabbe presents plagiarism as the utmost breach of academic integrity.

“The university does not tolerate plagiarism in any form, and takes steps to educate students on what it is, and how to avoid it,” he says.

“Course co-ordinators are expected to ensure that in the early stages, all students—particularly those in first-year courses—receive a clear statement regarding the… seriousness of committing plagiarism.”

Students are directed to their course’s outline, and to the university’s website, which offers four “simple rules” as guidelines on how to attribute fully and correctly. These are to acknowledge other people’s ideas; to reference the sources of these ideas; to make clear where and when they are referred to; and to be honest about their origins.

These work well enough as rules of thumb for undergraduates still getting to grips with what could be considered plagiarism in their work. Students can take more awkward referencing queries to the Student Learning Support Service (SLSS).

Lecturers and tutors can contact the University Teaching Development Centre (UTDC) for assistance on “effective course and assessment design to discourage misconduct, as well as on how to detect plagiarism,” says Professor Crabbe.

Guidelines, centres and services aside, the fact remains: plagiarism is a thorny issue, and one that even experienced writers struggle to avoid. Indeed, some aspects of the media seem to encourage it, albeit indirectly.

According to Samson, whose Master’s thesis was on plagiarism and fabrication within news media, the practice is especially rife within the newsroom. He says this is because the industry is too inflexible to allow for standard attribution.

For example, “journalists required to background a running story may forget that some words or phrases were not their own, and stories filed around the world through agencies can’t always reasonably have every step of their genesis acknowledged”.

Samson stresses again that “plagiarism is not always clear-cut”, and that in cases such as these, the journalist’s crime is simply “sloppiness”. He cites the speed of story production, and the pressure put upon journalists by their editors to “get the story at all costs”, as further explanation for why plagiarism occurs so often in the newsroom.

In the case of plagiarism by university students, Samson says “most undergraduates are just naive”.

Gracewood expands: “I think most plagiarism by undergraduates is this sort of wishful, hectic shortcut, done when deadlines run close or you’re not confident about the task… [but] there’s still no excuse for copying. You really do have to go out of your way to copy someone else’s work word for word.”

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Last year, 52 students at Victoria University were found to have plagiarised, or cheated in examinations, compared to 86 in 2008, says Professor Crabbe. Figures released to the Dominion Post under the Official Information Act earlier this year suggest that this was the most of any tertiary provider in New Zealand.

Whether this indicates Victoria is host to more plagiarists, or is simply better at apprehending them, is impossible to prove.

Victoria University employs Turnitin.com to validate potential cases of plagiarism. The website identifies sections of text that are similar or identical to other sources, which include “work publicly available on the Internet, work submitted to Turnitin.com by students and publishers, and work from other students,” says Professor Crabbe.

He says that part of its effectiveness is its mere presence within the university, which “sends a strong and positive message to students. [It has] also been effective as a tool to manage staff workload associated with plagiarism detection, particularly in large classes, and in providing clear documentation for formal action”.

Could publishers use this software to expose plagiarism by their authors? Walker thinks not.

“We’ve been looking at this at Penguin, but we’re not actually sure. Such software is only as good as the texts included in that programme’s database… but we’re not sure if that will cover general books, be they fiction or nonfiction.”

The bottom line: “it won’t pick up everything”.

Gracewood agrees. “I did run some Ihimaera quotes through Turnitin, but it didn’t seem to recognise them at all,” she says.

“I’d say a well-honed instinct for prose, and the ability to spot it when it abruptly changes, is a more useful tool—albeit not as cheap and easy to come by.”

Indeed, Professor Crabbe claims that in many instances of student plagiarism, the first alarm bell to sound is a sudden divergence in writing or formatting style. Another indication is “recognition of material copied from other sources without appropriate citation”.

In responding to “the small minority” of student plagiarists, Victoria University refers to its Student Conduct Statute, which makes a distinction between an informal cautionary process for minor cases, where the student has not committed plagiarism before, and a formal disciplinary procedure, to be used in more serious cases, or for repeat offenders.

As per usual, regardless of medium or context, prevention is better than cure.

As hard as plagiarism is to define, it’s easy to prevent.

“Academic English is just another version of the English we speak in everyday life, and an essay is just a conversation on paper with real people who deserve to be credited,” says Gracewood.

“So, if you’re quoting someone directly, then say so (‘OMG, Isabelle said the best thing!’), and if you’re paraphrasing an idea you picked up along the way to writing your paper, then give credit where it’s due (‘Yeah, nah, Tarek’s got a point’).”

And, when in doubt: “Put everything you read, online or off, into the bibliography, so you can’t be accused of hiding your sources”

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

Comments (3)

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  1. This was very enlightening. I have always wondered how the lines were drawn. Then again there are the news correspondents and their headlines taken out of context. Should these be allowed to go on?

  2. Poopy says:

    Soz – haven’t read the article, yet but who is the artwork on the front by? Cause it is a direct rip of Radiohead artwork if it isn’t Stanley Donwood. Thought that was funny due to the title of the article

  3. smackdown says:

    hey cool someone gets jokes

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