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May 2, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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When It’s Not So Black and White

We all know the basic rules of plagiarism prevention: acknowledge others’ ideas, reference the source of those ideas, and be honest about their origins. But pinpointing unoriginal work can be more problematic than simply running a dodgy essay through TurnItIn—especially in creative fields.Salient co-editor Elle Hunt looks at the line ruled between inspiration and theft at Victoria University’s School of Architecture and Design.


It’s every final-year student’s worst nightmare: in 2008, design student Brittany Bell was barred from graduating from Victoria University.
Bell, who was on the cusp of gaining a Bachelor of Design with Honours in interior architecture, had been found guilty of plagiarism after she allegedly failed to adequately attribute images used in her final project. The University’s Disciplinary Appeals Committee recommended that she should fail the paper—a verdict that would have sent Bell back to uni for at least another semester.

However, Bell disputed the Committee’s ruling that she deliberately attempted to pass other architects’ work as her own. The images that she included in her final project were from the design website suckerPUNCH, and included the work of award-winning Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and recent graduate Sarah Schneider. Bell argued that she had referenced both the website and the artists’ works in the appendix and bibliography attached to the final draft of her project.

The Committee upheld the ruling on appeal, and so in mid-2010, Bell began legal proceedings against Victoria University at the Wellington High Court.

Old Enough to Know Better?

Plagiarism is often dismissed as the offence of new students still getting to grips with academic referencing: a crime borne of sloppiness or ignorance. But Bell, in her fourth year of study, would have been in no doubt as to what was expected of her, argued defence counsel Bruce Corkill QC.

Corkill said course guidelines were “crystal clear” as to the requirements for sourcing images, and that students were reminded to refer to them at regular intervals.

However, Bell’s lawyer Les Taylor noted that Bell had in fact referenced the images in the appendix and bibliography attached to the final draft of her project.

“It would be a curious form of plagiarism that directed the examiner to the very work being copied. If there was any intention to deceive… Ms Bell went about it in an extremely unusual way.”

The University responded that the website citations Bell provided were vague and inadequate. Moreover, a series of panels on her final project lacked references altogether.

Taylor said that the design Bell submitted, of a conceptual seed archive, was “clearly heavily influenced” by Schneider and Calatrava, but that it was an original work.

This is the crux of the issue. There is a fine line separating inspiration from theft, and no more so than in creative fields such as architecture and graphic design, in which the use of artists as ‘precedents’ is encouraged. This makes validating suspected instances of plagiarism problematic: how much ‘borrowing’ is too much?

In “Brothers From Another Mother”, an article published for the online magazine The Morning News, contributing writer Clay Risen pointed out that architecture is held to a different set of standards than literature, making it harder to detect plagiarism.

“A book’s value is decided in large part by the accumulated impressions gained from reading it; therefore, if part of the book was written by someone else, its author has rigged the reader’s appreciation of their work… [but most people] judge a building by the sum of its parts to the near exclusion of its individual elements”—meaning, therefore, that it’s more difficult to prove that one architect stole from another. A striking resemblance between two balustrades is not conclusive enough evidence, and for this reason, catcalls of plagiarism in architecture often go unheeded.

However, Risen argues, to accuse architects of theft is to underestimate the design process, which sees “artists draw on and play off each other as a way of getting closer to particular aesthetic truths.

“Is it fair, or even wise, to expect every architect to be completely isolated from others, and for every building to look completely different?… Architects are not trained in a vacuum, so why expect them to work in one?”

Though Risen’s argument is idealistic—all creatives, not least of all architects, should be able to secure ownership of their ideas—he makes a fair point. Budding architects and designers are taught to refer to others’ works to learn the tricks of the trade, sometimes to the exclusion of genuine original thought. For example, NCEA Level 3 Visual Arts students are required to refer to “established practice” in order to achieve the external standard, which suggests that that work that lacks obvious precedents might not meet the achievement criteria.

This trend of using precedents, or ‘artist models’, continues at a tertiary level, although not to the same extent. While students are encouraged to use the process or ideology behind a work as a starting point for their own designs, a straight interpretation of a designer’s aesthetic does count as plagiarism. So, design and architecture students more so than their Kelburn counterparts are required to tread that fine line, as their courses require them to draw from existing work—but not too much.

Tribute or Theft?

What constitutes “too much”, however, is debatable—bringing us back to Bell. At the end of 2008, her seed archive was featured in the influential online magazine Dezeen. There, unaware of the allegations levelled against her, commentators picked up on the influence than Schneider and Calatrava had had on her work.

However, Zaha Hadid, Ross Lovegrove, Hernan Dia Alonso and other architects were also speculated to have influenced Bell, while earlier in the year, Dezeen readers dismissed Schneider as a “wannabe Zaha”. This reinforces the notion that imitation is part and parcel of the design process: Bell draws from Schneider, who has in turn found inspiration in Hadid.

As much truth as there might be in this argument, it’s not given credence at academic institutions, and perhaps this is for logistical reasons: after all, the policing for plagiarism motivates students to at least aim for original thought.

Victoria University’s website gives a broad definition of plagiarism (it extends to “design and ideas”, as well as “the organisation or structuring of any such material”) and a grave warning of its consequences.

“Plagiarism undermines academic integrity simply because it… involves stealing other people’s intellectual property and lying about whose work it is… If you are found guilty of plagiarism, you may be penalised under the Statue on Student Conduct… You could fail your course or even be suspended from the University.

“Plagiarism is easy to detect. The University has systems in place to identify it. Plagiarism is simply not worth the risk.”

The University’s “systems in place” include the use of plagiarism detection software TurnItIn, which identifies sections of text that bear resemblance to other sources. That’s all well and good for students cribbing paragraphs from their readings, but TurnItIn is of little use at the Te Aro campus. So what is the process for plagiarism prevention and detection there?

“Information is included in all course outlines within the Faculty of Architecture and Design. It states: “The University defines plagiarism as presenting someone else’s work as if it were your own, whether you mean to or not,” says Jenny Christie, the Faculty’s Associate Dean of Teaching, Learning and Students.

“‘Someone else’s work’ means anything that is not your own idea. Even if it is presented in your own style, you must acknowledge your sources fully and appropriately.”

Perhaps in a bid to address the ineffectualness of TurnItIn at detecting plagiarism in visual projects, a declaration form relating to plagiarism and copyright is being trialled in one course this trimester. Christie says that this could result in a full rollout at the Te Aro campus later this year.
Moreover, an “academic integrity online inter-active learning module” has been spearheaded by Deputy Head of Design School and senior lecturer Margaret Maile Petty as one of the funded Learning and Teaching Development Projects scheduled for 2011.

As for Bell, Justice Denis Clifford of the Wellington High Court found fault with both her and the University’s appeals committee. Justice Clifford said that the University’s finding that Bell had plagiarised others’ work was not unjustified, but that the committee had failed to take into account a number of factors, such as the website references included in her project. The committee had also failed to prove that the plagiarism was a deliberate attempt to deceive, and neglected to give Bell a chance to respond to their charge that it was intentional.

Justice Clifford recommended that the appeals committee reconsider the case, and that process is ongoing, although Bell now works at Weta Digital.

If we’re to accept that some level of imitation is par for the course in artistic fields, the level of influence exhibited in Bell’s work might have been considered acceptable for a practicing architect. However, as a student of Victoria University, Bell was held to rather more stringent standards, and perhaps this is understandable: cries of “copycat” are even harder to prove in the workplace environment, which lacks lecturers and tutors to monitor and vouch for the development of one’s work, and this might have resulted in a freer flow of ideas. At this vulnerable stage in their careers, though, design and architectural students would do well to err on the side of caution in their bibliographies. Not only will it uphold your academic integrity, it might also foster origianlity that will be rewarded later on in your career. And what’s more, just as it’s difficult to prove instances of suspected plagiarism, it’s hard to disprove them.

UPDATE: Bell graduated in May 2011 will first class honours.

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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.

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