HONG KONG — Plagiarism warnings to students are all theoretical until that vexing assignment comes along. Oh, the temptation! Just a simple Control-C-Control-V maneuver with your fingers, pasting just the right words into your document … Presto! All your homework worries evaporate.
The contagion entered my classroom clinging to modest 300-word features, on Filipinas in Hong Kong struggling to support families in the typhoon-struck Philippines. (See post below.) While focusing on one woman, students were also required to note the big picture of what befell the country itself.
Searching the wires, the temptation proved too great. Some seemingly wondered: “How could I ever describe the destruction as eloquently?” Others succumbed to: “I wanna get this story done, quick!” I found at least a dozen cases of flat-out theft. Which is a real pity, because I was truly pleased with the students’ overall effort to find compelling stories and describe them in detail.
I’ve heard of pervasive plagiarism in Chinese universities (and elsewhere, of course), with several of my colleagues here now grumbling about the same thing. I’m new to Chinese culture, but I wonder if there isn’t a link between plagiarism and the same mentality and lawlessness that enables widespread piracy of CDs, DVDs and computer software: “If it’s ripe for the taking, take it.”
In this case, my sleuthing was made easier by non-native-English-speaking students who suddenly produced a perfectly worded, native-English-sounding sentence or paragraph. Not the cleverest of criminals!
In the West, intellectual-property theft is taken so seriously, I told students about the time a magazine client accused me of plagiarizing … from myself. I’d written a short article for one client, then expanded it for another, doubling its length with much more research and interviewing. Yet I also lifted a few graphs from my original. Not good enough, said the second client. Lesson learned.
In a hotly worded email to my students, I imposed another “zero tolerance” policy. (See Sept. 15 post below.) Either paraphrase the words or quote directly, in both cases attribute the source. There are no other options. One student was so ashamed at being busted, she emailed me that she “could not fall asleep or even stop my tears.” Lesson learned.