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"Good poets borrow, great poets steal" is a famous quote by T.S. Elliot. The subject of this quote has been altered into artists, singers and actors to suit its meaning but the quote itself is being taken out of context. T.S Eliot does not endorse literary theft, on the contrary, he argues that writers can use other people's work as a foundation for their own, taking it into a new level by injecting fresh ideas and launching it to a new reader. Piracy of someone else's work in the artistic and literary world is a commonplace which goes back as early as the 16th century. Even Shakespeare alluded in Sonnet 99 that certain copies of his sonnets were stolen and published by William Jaggard as his own, which Shakespeare referred to him as the 'sweet thief' in Sonnet 99. Nowadays, it seems that cheating and plagiarism is still a normal practice with the students, and apparently, a student who does not cheat and plagiarised is labelled within the student community as 'abnormal'; "In fact, it might be closer to the norm than most of us would like to think" (Kevin Bushweller). This essay will discuss the definition and problems of plagiarism, its many forms, consequences and appropriate penalty in the academic institutions. It will also look at the overall academic integrity and ethics of both the students, professors and universities.
Plagiarism is the unauthorised used or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work. To make a point, this is the straightforward definition of plagiarism that was taken word-for-word from the Oxford English Dictionary. However, this definition must be examined very closely and translate it in a way that every person would understand, if it still ambiguous. The etymology of the word came from the Latin word 'plagiarius' which meant 'kidnapper, seducer, plunderer' and was used in the sense of 'literary thief'. The suffix 'ism' was added to indicate a form of practice, an act or habit (OED). In other words, in the literary and academic sense, plagiarism is just another form of theft. It is an act of stealing spoken and written words with intent to claim ownership and originality of that work or property; for example: a concept, argument, themes and ideas, essay, thesis and research etc. The close imitation of the language pertains to paraphrasing, which simply means rewording. Although it is not verbatim, it becomes plagiarism when the original idea is clearly maintained and stolen, and failure to use citations. However, in some cases, paraphrasing or translating a written work into lay man's term is necessary in order for easy comprehension. For example, Shakespeare's language, archaic words, scientific and medical terms and study.
It is important to note that plagiarism is different from copyright infringement. Although both are act of theft or stealing, the latter is an infringement or violation of the rights of the copyright holder; it is a crime, a civil offence and punishable by law. Whereas, the ethical violation in plagiarism, although a serious offence, no law has been made about it. The penalty is dependant on the universities' academic policies.
Access to information is readily available on and offline has encouraged students to become lazy and the temptation to cheat seems difficult to resist. Essays, term papers, thesis and such like are available to buy on the internet. A lot of information on the internet is available for free, again, most without proper citations and disclaimer, hence, promoting irresponsible publishing. One can also employ the service of a 'ghost writer' taking dishonesty to a higher level. These options combined with high technology (and other factors to be discussed in the subsequent paragraphs), has given students more opportunity to be deceitful about their own work regardless of their personal integrity or the mere lack of it.
Probably the most common form of plagiarism is copying someone else's work word-for-word, copying phrases, paragraphs or sentences, without proper referencing or acknowledging the author or the source. This does not mean that it is acceptable to copy verbatim as long as you acknowledge your sources. It is like saying "it is ok to steal as long as I repent later". To make this acceptable, the words or phrases must be put in quotes with proper acknowledgement, and better yet, followed by your own interpretation of the words or phrases. Paraphrasing and deceptive quoting on the other hand, are being committed by the students who are aware that replicating someone else's work is erroneous but it is not wrong to replace some words with synonyms and add a few words of their own as an effortless attempt to make the work their own.
An example of a high-profile and very embarrassing case of plagiarism is Colonel Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam. It has been alleged that the former student of London School of Economics plagiarised his PhD thesis by copying parts of his thesis and employing a ghost writer. It has been suggested that the university may have turned a 'blind eye' on Saif al-Islam's action because of the huge amount of money he pledged to LSE. This is not surprising. Some schools, colleges and universities are turning a blind eye on this scenario to attain prestige, higher ranking, and to hide their own inefficiency to put policies and procedures in place for this, and perhaps the shortcoming for failing to educate their students about the basic practice or essay writing and citations. Both suffer from the consequences and both loses their integrity and credibility.
Penalties vary from the extent of the plagiarism, repeated offence, and depending on the university's policies and procedures. It range from a fail mark at the very least, a suspension from the particular class, or an expulsion from the university altogether. In some universities, the degree will not even be awarded as a penalty for plagiarism. Another consequence beyond the university is the future of the student who committed plagiarism; he or she may be rejected by other universities and potential employers. It is not only the students who steal other people's work but also those who educate them. The punishment for professor who is guilty of plagiarism is either suspension or termination from their post together with their bleak future.
For students who 'accidentally' plagiarised should be penalised the same way as those who intentionally plagiarised. Although intent should be considered when determining judgement, "ignorance is not an excuse". In fact, many are using ignorance to get away from wrong doing and punishment. It is right to assume that university students are now in a stage where he or she is aware of good moral conduct, academic practice and integrity.
It is difficult to avoid plagiarism because almost everything about anything has already been written. In the words of Helene Hegeman: "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity". True, that it is hard to be 100% original and come up with a new concept or a novel idea (even this essay about plagiarism is not a novelty!). Everything is recycled and second-hand, but if one put his or her own twist (the keyword is own), different perspective, accept an idea or refute it, expand it, dissect it, add creativity and freshness into it, then becomes your own work. At the same time, ensuring that it is properly cited, referenced, bibliographed and acknowledged sources where applicable, and also use footnotes and endnotes where necessary.
One must take responsibility for their own actions be that of the student's ignorance or lack of understanding standard academic practices, working on tight deadlines; any excuse to cheat and steal. And that of the educators' and university's lack of academic integrity, failing to educate its students by lack of clear procedures in place and failing to provide students with the basic study skills and information on plagiarism. If this epidemic is not stopped or at least, minimised, universities are producing nothing but students with a degree in, masters and doctorate in plagiarism. Finally, we must not forget one of God's Ten Commandments: "Thou shall not steal". Plagiarism is stealing and stealing is simply wrong, and is punishable here on earth and in heaven.