What’s ‘a little’ plagiarism?

Acorn picture taken from http://smartpei.typepad.com/robert_patersons_weblog/2006/02/great_return_9_.html

As you may know from my previous post, plagiarism is a big issue for me. Recently UCAS, Britain’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, did a scan to see how much of the personal statements in university applications had been plagiarized. There have been several stories about this, including one on the BBC website, most of which seem to be basically ripped from a UCAS press release. (We won’t go into the irony of this here…)

One of the classic examples of plagiarism that was caught involved would-be students claiming that their love of chemistry came from their, “burning a hole in pyjamas at age eight.”

Most of the story is what you’d expect, but what concerned me was the attitude of the UCAS Chief Executive Anthony McClaren, which suggests that “borrowing material and adapting it” (5% of all applicants) is not really cheating. Only 1% of candidates copy directly from the internet without making changes (which makes you wonder what their coursework was like), and this, says McClaren, means that plagiarism “is not rife”.

For me, the fact that 1/20 students doesn’t know why they want to study and has to “adapt” from someone else’s reason, is not a good thing.

Worse, the applications scanned by the CopyCatch plagiarism detection software were all from those who wanted to be medics, vets, and dentists: that is, applying to professions for which there seems to be at least some concept of a vocation. I wonder what the figures would look like for my department—electrical engineering—where many students come in with no interest whatever in their subject: just the intent to get a good degree and a job in the city. We’re just a means to an end for them.

The good news is that McClaren says that UCAS will shortly be boosting their plagiarism detection effort, doubling the verification unit that is responsible for identifying fraudulent applications. The bad news is that he doesn’t suggest what the penalties will be (if any) for students who “borrow” from other people’s life experience to make themselves look more committed to their subject.

Originally posted on Sunny Bains unedited.