Marking piles of essays is never my favourite task, but it’s when I identify student plagiarism that I get most wound up. There are degrees of plagiarism – some newer students just haven’t grasped the need to use quotation marks or why they need to write things in their own words. I fear some have got into bad habits at college. Others really struggle with writing in English which is their second or third language. Some are taking the easy option, perhaps because of various other pressures in their lives. Most of these students end up resitting the assignment.
But then there are more flagrant or more devious examples of plagiarism, generally identified by the changing style of the writing, slightly off topic material or the use of identifiable material recommended during the course (sometimes written by a tutor!) Some of these come back showing very high percentages of content copied from the Internet. Some include some very careful piecing together and apparent proper referencing. I’m sure I don’t catch them all, and there’s little satisfaction when I do. I feel sad that a student has cheated, has wasted their time and mine in tutorials or been so desperate to pass that they take the risk of committing an academic offence.
This week has brought me a whole new level of insight into being plagiarised. A research centre linked to a major charity published a report which ripped off several sections from my PhD thesis. I was shocked and furious, particularly because I had met the lead author at a conference and been helpful, offering a link to my work. Part of me wanted to shout about injustice from the rooftops, see if I could get any newspaper interest and ruin someone’s career, possibly damaging other reputations as I went. Pragmatically, since mine is a fairly small field, I didn’t want to burn any bridges for my future employment prospects. But I definitely wanted the credit for the work I had done.
I ended up in very reasonable conversations with an academic who assured me of a quick response. After some reluctance they removed the report from the Internet once they saw the scale of the ‘lack of attribution’ (my phrase – one colleague had advised me not to call it plagiarism). They have made some changes which should mean I get some quite nice references to my work (so long as the people who read the report didn’t download the original dodgy copy straight away). And while it seems rather a coincidence, they are asking me to believe that the copying was done by an external third party rather than the person I met. I would say the first author still holds responsibility for including the outsourced material without proper checks, but I would rather believe that I wasn’t personally betrayed in quite the same way.
Getting recognition for your work is gratifying – as well as the justice around non-plagiarism, there’s a respect that comes from being acknowledged as a useful source and as many people have pointed out this week, something flattering in imitation, even when incompetently done. It’s nice when dissertation students mention me in the acknowledgements. I smile a different smile when they thank everyone including their dog but forget to mention me – the person who will actually be marking their work.
Another place I go where sources are sometimes mentioned with care or warmth is a folk club. Even singing traditional songs, many singers will tell you where they found the song and I like hearing how they heard it from their Dad who got it from some old folk singer/sailor/miner, or from an old book of folk songs somewhere. Or from some other fabulous singer who they knew personally.
Last night a friend and I enjoyed a wonderful evening of singing and tunes from Bryony Griffith & Will Hampson. They sang and played material from Yorkshire, Brittany and many places in between. Bryony has a lovely chatty style so we heard plenty about the origins of the songs, the places in the songs that she had dragged Will to visit and the songs she misses singing with the rest of her former band, The Witches of Elswick (who we saw perform at the same club back in December 2006).
When my friend and I did a floor spot just before the second half, we considered our song choices carefully. A number of the songs we sing came via the Witches since as a young female group the style and subjects they chose suited us better than most. We ended up singing versions of Yellow Handkerchief and The Forsaken Mermaid as sung by Linda Adams and Waterson Carthy. I mentioned where we’d got the songs although stumbled slightly saying we don’t actually know these other performers but we knew their songs from CDs. Funnily enough there is a different version of The Forsaken Mermaid on Bryony and Will’s CD which we bought. They title it ‘The Constant Lovers’ and it’s a lovely arrangement with Bryony on piano – a very different feel to the full on joining in we got last night. The sleeve notes say they learnt it from singarounds and took some additional lyrics from Martyn Wyndham-Read.
The nostalgia Bryony later mentioned for singing Lord Randall with Fay (Hield) made me wonder if she might not have minded us singing a Witches song after all. If we had, I would have mentioned them of course. Any mention of their work means someone might look them up and buy a CD perhaps. What I wouldn’t do is perform a folk song from someone else and brazenly tell the audience that I wrote it. Even if I got it from someone who got it from someone else, I still wouldn’t dream of claiming I wrote it.
But I suppose there are songs where the origins are unknown – songs that get recorded or published in books as ‘anon’ or ‘trad’. If you found that one of your songs had been mistakenly attributed in this way, you would have every right to contact the publisher and ask them to correct it. It probably wouldn’t be the publisher’s fault. And if they agreed to make the change you should probably shut up about it and just be glad that your material is out there with the chance of a little more recognition in the future. You might still write a blog post though…
According to plagiarism software provider, Turnitin, this is Plagiarism Education Week. To celebrate this joyous event, today one of my students gave me a draft dissertation which seriously rips off an essay I wrote 13 years ago and perhaps foolishly put on my old business website. You couldn’t make it up. Or more precisely, he couldn’t.