Idea-thieves and plagiarists undermine society

The digital world makes plagiarism much easier. Photo: Alastair Grant / AP
The digital world makes plagiarism much easier. Photo: Alastair Grant / AP

A procession winds its way through the crowded streets of 9th century Rome. At its head is his holiness the Pope. The pomp ends abruptly when Il Papa falls to the ground clutching his abdomen; the immaculate white robes now running red with papal blood.

What happened next – if true – makes every scandal of the modern age seem banal. According to some chroniclers, the Holy Father in question was actually an “unholy mother”, and having gone into labour delivered an illegitimate child right there on the crowded streets of Rome.

This is a contested account about Pope Joan Britannicus, a woman of great intellect, who is said to have risen through the ranks and attained the highest office in Christendom – the first and only female Pope, albeit in the guise of a man.

This great medieval tale of pretence brings to my mind an issue that is increasingly important issue in our information age – plagiarism. While not nearly as dramatic as passing oneself off as a member of the opposite sex, plagiarism is, at heart, all about pretence.

Plagiarists are great pretenders, passing themselves off as the possessors of intellectual and creativity abilities that are not their own. Ideas are among our most precious possessions, and the plagiarist is an idea-thief. Unfortunately, the internet has greatly simplified the act of plagiarism.

The information super highway – as the internet was once commonly known – attracts highwaymen as robbers were once called. Nowhere is this more evident than in our universities.

The rate of cheating, such as plagiarism, among US college students has been estimated at between 40 and 90 per cent.

Those who study academic dishonesty conclude that acts such as plagiarism have become endemic. Of course, there has always been academic dishonesty, but information technology, by its anonymising and distancing nature, seems to encourage and facilitate it.

Psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated how we are far more comfortable telling a lie in emails than in handwritten letters. Consider also how much easier it is to SMS a little white lie than it is to say the same face-to-face.

If more and more young minds become accustomed to plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty, what effect will this have on society? If we increasingly copy other people’s ideas, will we see a society-wide deterioration in creativity, intellect and academic prowess? Maybe this is the essence of our information age: we have smart phones, so we don’t need to be so smart ourselves. However, just as the means of deception are facilitated by IT, so too are the means of detection. There are software applications that can detect and report plagiarism in student essays with pretty impressive accuracy.

But, is it really the role of a college professor to act as an investigator, treating each essay as a potential crime scene? Furthermore, there are lots of websites that offer bespoke essays, which they claim are guaranteed to beat the online plagiarism detection applications.

If students become accustomed to academic fraud, what kind of leaders will they make in the world of work?

Plagiarism undermines the meaning of education and we need to think differently about assessment and make it much harder for cheats to prosper.

One of our own ideas, published earlier this year, in the journal Innovations in Education and Teaching International, describes the use of a special oral examination, where plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty are just not possible. This is a great example of a low-tech medieval solution to a high-tech, information age problem. Innovation is Janus faced, we need to look backwards as well as forwards. 

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

Published: December 23, 2014 04:00 AM

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