“A case of plagiarism has been identified that involves your work. You are to appear before The University plagiarism panel…” the email began. I remember being slightly scared but moreover I was enraged, how dare The University accuse me of plagiarism or even being complicit in plagiarism?
That was a long while ago – during my first degree. It occurred to me last night though that something similar to what happened to me could easily happen to someone else now and it’s something students should be aware of.
I went to the plagiarism hearing open minded, but with a very assertive position. The work concerned was a programming task and I’d actually been a professional programmer before going to university, thus it was quite likely that my solution to the problem was similar to one in a text book or to something one of the academic staff may have written.
It transpired that this was not the problem. The line of questioning followed one rather obvious track, to try to answer the question of if I’d either worked sufficiently closely on the exercise that someone else may have submitted a solution similar to mine or if I’d shown my solution to anyone else.
I was a little angered by the first point: was The University suggesting that I shouldn’t help other students? Surely a university is supposed to support learning not discourage it? I found the second point plain insulting, did The University really think I was that stupid?
I think the panel may have picked up on my frustration because eventually they just showed me the two submissions. The one on the left was plainly mine, as was the one on the right. They were almost identical, right down to the spacing and layout. That caused a sharp intake of breath.
“Are you sure nobody could have taken a copy of your work?” asked one of the panellists. This was a welcome change in the tone, “you didn’t leave your terminal unlocked when you went away or anything?”
“No,” I replied, “I worked in a secure environment for 4 years before I came here, I’m fastidious about locking my terminal. I genuinely can’t think how the other student got a copy of my work.”
Then one of the panellists pointed out that there was a mistake in the copied submission and it suddenly dawned on me. Back in those days we submitted printed out listings. At the end of a lab session the printer was usually congested with people trying to print out their work so I’d taken to printing earlier and using the rest of the lab time to double-check my solution. I’d spotted the mistake in the first copy, screwed it up in disgust and thrown it away. I corrected it and printed a new copy which was the one I submitted.
Someone had waited until the end of the lab session and then fished my first copy out of the bin, then copied it verbatim.
“I’m happy with that explanation,” said one of the panel members. The others nodded, “I see no reason to inconvenience Mr Fosdick further.” I later found out, unofficially, that the other student was of low ability and to submit a nearly correct solution was quite out of character. There never really was a question about whose the work was, they only wanted to establish that there hadn’t been excessive collusion between us.
Last night I was thinking that this is unlikely to happen now because most submissions are electronic – there’s no need for people to print out their work. Then it dawned on me that every student these days is walking round with a relatively high resolution camera (phone) and that leaving your terminal unlocked for a short time could easily result in sections of work being plagiarised.
So please be careful, plagiarism is taken very seriously by universities. Even if it’s your work that the original you could still find yourself in serious trouble if you’re unable to defend the accusation that you may have allowed someone else to copy your work, or worked so closely with them / helped them so much that you’ve both essentially submitted the same solution.
Don’t get me wrong – helping people is definitely encouraged, but there’s a line you must stay the right side of. I think of it as this – explaining how to solve the problem is productive, giving someone the solution to the problem is counter-productive (and dangerous).