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Da Vinci Code Case Sees Plagiarism Hit High; but Does No-one Like A Cheat?

Who’s looking over your shoulder?

Everybody, it seems, as plagiarism seems to have hit an all-time high. Only this week, the hot debut novel of a 19yr old Harvard student has been revealed as a compilation of other people’s work, strung together with the weakest of re-wording, or “internalising” as the masquerading author puts it. Had no-one noticed, her gains would have been enormous: a lucrative deal for two further books and a movie were being discussed. Now, these plans have been scrapped and the novel itself recalled. The gut reaction of people towards proved plagiarism is unanimous: no-one likes a cheat.

Conference on Plague of Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a problem in education too, where the temptation to “borrow” someone else’s work, be it another student’s or published material, is hard to resist when there is so much pressure to perform well and achieve good results. Next month sees the JISC Plagiarism Advisory Service’s 2nd International Plagiarism Conference, to be held in Tyne and Wear. The conference will deal with attitudes towards plagiarism and general ethics in teaching, and will try to establish a universal set of guidelines for educators to approach the problem with.

Speakers have been invited from all over the world and include Professors Donald McCabe from Rutgers University in New Jersey, Tom Angelo from Wellington University, New Zealand and Sally Brown of the Leeds Metropolitan University. The first plagiarism conference, held in 2004, attracted over 140 delegates from Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, the US and others. The message is clear; it’s not just a local problem, no-one in the world likes a cheat.

It has always been difficult to determine where the line between careful research and sheer plagiarism falls. Some cases are obvious, such as when a student lazily copies a passage verbatim from a textbook or, more commonly these days, copies and pastes a good specimen from the internet. This is how most high profile plagiarists get caught; like a careless jewel-thief their “work” becomes sloppy and clues are left, and it is not long before someone, somewhere, notices a more than coincidental likeness to someone else’s work.

This is how the bestselling Harvard novelist was found out, and this is what also led to the downfall of Jayson Blair, the successful American journalist who significantly tarnished the reputation of the New York Times in 2003 when it was discovered that not only was he plagiarizing other journalists” work, he was also faking interviews and stories. The area becomes distinctly greyer, however, when the alleged plagiarism is not as obvious to the eye. What happens when it is not the words, but the ideas of another person that is the subject of plagiarism?

The Da Vinci Code Case

Few will need reminding of the recent court battle over the ideas used in author Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code, whose central themes and theories were claimed by authors Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent as being lifted straight from their book Holy Blood, Holy Grail from the 80’s. Baigent and Leigh lost their case as the theories used in the novel were not deemed to be their own property; you cannot, it seems, copyright an idea, but only the order of the words you use to write that idea down with. Good news for Shakespeare then, who has long been accused by some of plagiarizing fellow playwrights Marlowe and Green for some of his plays.

Plagiarism is more of an art than a crime. The high profile plagiarism cases that invade the news are examples of poor plagiarism and sloppy cheating. The true plagiarist puts as much care into his “work” as an undercover cop or a successful poker player. True plagiarists never get caught, their work is too well disguised to be recognized and they will have often left small indicators of original work to throw skeptics off the scent. Ironically, the good plagiarist often exerts equal effort in producing a work of plagiaristic genius than the perfectly honest student that works from scratch. Like fake masterpiece paintings, the work of the diligent plagiarist may fool its readers for generations and on its discovery is as wondrous for the skill employed in its illegitimate construction as it is for the outrage it produces.

For plagiarism to be spotted, therefore, the plagiarist in question must be of inferior skill and motivation, as only the lazy cheats are found easily. Their crime therefore, seems not so much that they broke the unwritten rule of honesty and copied someone else’s work, but that they didn”t even have the skill or effort to pull it off with any grace; laziness and carelessness is despised in all work, no matter what the source. The key to plagiarism, it seems, is in getting away with it.

Rising Standards in Plagiarism?

This is a goal that the diligent plagiarist sets himself, with the bar being continually raised by alert education authorities, and to pass it off unscathed they must first prove themselves worthy of the inordinate skill and concentration involved in producing an undetectable piece of plagiarism. As the initial objective of plagiarism is to save yourself from effort, this produces a paradox; just as the honest student must go against their will to cheat, the honest plagiarist must go against their own will to expend actual effort in producing a piece of successful plagiarism.

With closer familiarity of each student’s work, plagiarists would be caught easy enough by education establishments, which need to forge closer links with their students if the practice and indeed the need for plagiarism, is to be addressed. The successful plagiarist also needs a healthy environment to work in, else they are starved of the surrogate material they need to survive. The internet has opened a wealth of knowledge and opinion, and it must not be forgotten that it may have made it easier to cheat, but also to learn in the first place; it is ironic that in many parts of the world the health of an area’s ecosystem is measured by the wellbeing of its population of vultures.

Daniel Wallis

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