Yesterday, the Tribune de Geneve published on its cover page the news that 85% of university students in the United States are involved in plagiarism. (One should praise the US for facing and making this problem public. One can imagine what the situation is in European universities with mega-classes of 300-500 students writing papers in non-English languages!) The article may give rise to numerous responses. One is that something must be wrong with society if 85% of the future elite is breaching not only legal but also basic ethical rules. But another response is to ask if 85% percent can be wrong. Is something wrong with them or with the anti-plagiarism rule or with the broader system? Let us start with the anti-plagiarism rule. It is still valid. It involves also the basic decency to mention the source of one’s ideas.
If 85% cannot be wrong and if the rule is right, what is wrong? The educational system? The system should make ethical behaviour both rational and pragmatic. But this is not the case in modern universities. Students are often asked to write long essays under pressure. Academic calendars are increasingly demanding. Faced with this pressure, many students opt for the rational solution which is “copy and paste” from the Internet. Can students be punished for being rational and pragmatic? At least rationality and pragmatism are one of the cherished values in modern society. The article in the Tribune de Geneve discusses how to deal with the effects of the plagiarism: How to identify it? How to punish students? There are only a few lines hinting that something is wrong with the current educational system.
Does the educational system need a major change? I think so. The current situation is not sustainable either for society or individuals. It nurtures collective hypocrisy. Tacitly, everybody involved in the process is aware of the plagiarism, but nobody wants to “rock the boat.” Everybody has his or her own rational approach (making the situation more difficult). Society requires numbers from the university (more students, more degrees, etc.). Most academic staff, pressed by “publish or perish,” see teaching and interaction with students as a secondary activity (research is primary). Teaching is very often delegated to assistants and tutors. Academic staff does not have an interest in rocking the boat. Students are rational as well. Ultimately, society expects from them the piece of paper and qualifications. It is what increasingly matters in a highly formalised society.
The situation is not sustainable. Probably today, in a time of pressure of numbers and hyper-production, there is more need than ever before to have the university a place for “thinking out of the box.”
So far the focus in discussion is on identifying better anti-plagiarism software (not on addressing broader and deeper issues). Like terrorism, poverty and other problems of modern society, we mix causes and effects and we do not see the forest for the three. 85% cannot be wrong!
Link to the article in the Tribune de Geneve
Geneva, 9th of November 2007