Saturday, 6 December 2008


I’ve just been marking a bunch of essays. The title was not of the most inspiring: ‘write a brief description of your country for a student magazine’ but demanding enough if your level of English is just about intermediate. Two of these essays are verbatim copies of the Wikipedia entry on Libya. I had expected this. Copy and paste jobs are pretty common in the year of language preparation courses that our overseas students undertake before beginning their degrees. The extent of plagiarism can vary from nicking the odd sentence from a web page to printing out the entire page and submitting it undisguised. The innocent openness with which this is done, and the floods of tears from a lovely young lady from Thailand when it was gently pointed out that she had rather missed the point of the exercise, suggest that at least early in the year, there is no intention to deceive. If your culture accords the written word high status as something to be revered and left unchanged, or attaches snob value to the deployment of arcane vocabulary and clever conceits, you may well feel that you may not presume to commit your own lowly efforts to paper, lest they be shat on from a great height. Suppose that you find, trawling the internet, a text that expresses exactly what you want to say in what you assume to be perfect English. It says what you mean, you won’t offend the tutor’s sensibilities with your lousy English, and it takes seconds to copy and paste. The perfect solution!

All goes to show how wrong you can be... OK, I understand all the above, and God forbid anyone should ever require me to write an academic essay in Greek, but I’m sympathetic only up to a point. First of all, you have signed up for a language course, so why doesn’t the sheer bloody pointlessness of copying entire web-pages strike you with great force? If the language goes from your browser to Word without passing through your brain, what benefit do you derive from the exercise? We usually thrash this out early on, but plagiarism is a theme we keep returning to as the course progresses and essays become more demanding. This idea of ownership of information is probably a western one, and like any foreign idea you feel under pressure to conform to, it’s also a rather irritating one, and the rule against plagiarism is one people feel inclined to flout. If you slip in the odd sentence, even the odd paragraph, big deal. Who's going to notice, anyway?

Well, any teacher of EFL can tell native from non-native speaker production in pretty much any stretch of writing longer than five words, and if a suspect phrase is googled, its source is easily tracked down. Some students assume that even if you do detect plagiarism, you will surely not risk causing them loss of face by drawing attention to it. A group of Chinese Accounting Management and Finance students at Essex University a few years ago did my head in with the first drafts of their projects which were mostly unintelligible, and where briefly intelligible, heavily plagiarised. The only strategy open to me was to say bluntly ‘you didn’t write this’ and ignore the writer’s protestations and wounded dignity. If they protested too vehemently, I showed them the URL of the page they had copied. Game, set and match.

This summer I checked out some web sites of organisations that will do you a bespoke essay. You just say what your title is, what kind of institution or degree it is for, how long it needs to be, and they’ll cobble something together, promising that it cannot be rumbled by plagiarism detection software. Sample essays may be viewed. These must be produced in a sort of scribblers’ sweatshop, perhaps by CAE* holders from Eastern Europe:

‘James finds his girlfriend dead after committing a suicide overnight. Being struck by this dreadful discovery the main character still does not go to seeds; he decides to stay in Chicago’

Who was it that committed the suicide here? (Well, the girlfriend, obviously. Why are teachers so literal minded? Duh!) Cute misuse of a half-remembered idiom in the second sentence.

‘Returning to the main character and his friend Leonard we witness how their relations arise to its peak point and suddenly, Leonardo vanishes.’

Shazzam! What did he do, jump off the peak point?

‘Frey writes in short simple sentences, often neglects punctuation and thus creates easy reading that develops fluently. As a result we receive favourably distinguishable prose in the genre of memoir but with flavour of captivating fiction.’

How do you create fluent, easy reading by neglecting punctuation? What is ‘favourably distinguishable prose’? It sounds like a phrase created by a jargon generator. Possibly it is. It might fool software but is there a tutor anywhere that would allow this sort of thing to pass? I fear there may well be, or the bespoke essay sites would be out of business.

I lived and taught for fifteen years in a country where bootleg certificates for courses, seminars or degrees are as common as bubblegum wrappers, and plagiarism is jokingly referred to as ‘κλοπή-right’ (klopi = theft) and practised widely. I’m at a loss to understand why anyone would want, let alone frame and put on display, a certificate for a qualification they have never worked for, or why they would hand in as their own work an essay they possibly have not even read, but I have a feeling that I and those who agree with me are throwbacks, reactionaries, dinosaurs. But rather proud of it.


*CAE = Certificate in Advanced English.

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