|Experience of interviewing student plagiarists suggests that many are confused about what they have done wrong. Their responses vary from brazen denial to contrition, but perhaps the most common reaction is baffled incomprehension. These students insist, sometimes tearfully, that they simply did not know that what they did was cheating. Of course, some of those who say this may simply be spinning a clever line, but others are genuine, and genuinely confused.
The source of that confusion could either be the inadequacy of our anti-plagiarism messages at NUS, or more likely, something inherently difficult in the concept itself. Intellectual property is not a simple thing like physical property. In the abstract world of ideas and creation, it is often hard to define what is shared, public property and what belongs to an individual. That problem is compounded in a university where the different kinds of knowledge of different disciplines lead to varied understandings of exactly what constitutes ownership and what constitutes theft or plagiarism.
This became clear during a cross-faculty discussion at a recent CDTL workshop. Colleagues from the humanities argued that their ideas are not simply expressed through words, but actually exist in those words. Without the words they are nothing. This means that words themselves become sacrosanct, and the reproduction or theft of words is plagiarism. Colleagues from some of the natural sciences saw things differently. Their ideas are in the data or the analysis or (sometimes) in a mathematical formulation. The words themselves, at least in some sections of a paper, are not essential to what is original and new and belongs to the author(s). Indeed, in some cases, the words could be conventional formulations that are the property of the community more than that of an individual or team.
This is straightforward enough for people working in each discipline, and generally we know what is considered proper in our own field and what not. It can, however, be confusing for students moving between faculties, as ours do now, or even between disparate disciplines in a single faculty. So, the question becomes how can we help them overcome that confusion?
There is, of course, no single or simple answer. But one partial solution could be increased self-consciousness on the teachers’ part. Perhaps that self-consciousness already exists, but I suspect that many of us (myself included) usually assume that plagiarism is a single thing and that students more or less know what it is. If it is indeed the case that we tend to assume that, then it might be helpful for us to think of plagiarism more in disciplinary terms—in terms of the nature of knowledge in our field and how it may be stolen—and describe plagiarism to students in that way. In other words, we should not simply tell students not to plagiarise, but should explain to them something about the nature of the discipline and the nature of intellectual property within it.
We know that we need to educate students about plagiarism as well as punish them for it. The question I am raising is simply whether more of our education should be set in a specific disciplinary context.