Thursday, 11 June 2009

Of Plagiarism...Agony...and Anguish

My colleague, the Reb, blogged about headaches and time wastage in having to write 12 warning letters to the seminary students for offences such as late submission of assignments and, most of all, plagiarism! I concur with the Reb that the what we have detected thus far is simply the tip of the iceberg.

I have been agonising over the issue of plagiarism since I started teaching in the seminary. Personally, I have detected a fair number of plagiarism. This is something I just simply could not understand - why can't the students just footnote it? Is it that difficult to just footnote it?

More than anything, it causes me deep pain and anguish every time I have to confront the students concerning issues of plagiarism. No matter how stern my warning is concerning the crime of plagiarism in the beginning of every course I teach, I still have students ignoring the plea for academic integrity both in the submission of assignments and theses.

Beyond wasting my time (which can be profitably used otherwise in my research and writing) in checking the references and sources, beyond the sleepless nights I experience in agonizing over the issue of having to confront my students, and beyond the disappointment that some of the students actually blamed the lecturers for exposing their act of plagiarism, is the issue of why the students continue to plagiarise despite all the warnings. Have we not considered plagiarism as a crime which is a deeper reflection of the fundamental issue of our integrity, character formation, and honesty? And if we cannot be honest with ourselves and uphold academic integrity while being trained in the seminary, can we remain faithful when we serve in Christian ministry in the future?

Someone once told me that he is shocked to hear that would-be-pastors would commit plagiarism and he wondered about the future of the church if such candidates were sent to seminary.

My plea is this: please do not plagiarise. Just footnote it. Be honest with yourself - before God and human. It causes the lecturers more pain than the students will ever know when we detect the act of plagiarism.


Paul Long said...


I posted this on the Reb's site in response to his blog post (but have expanded it to a "longer" comment. LOL ...

I think it is sad that you are writing such letters as it is a poor reflection of the integrity of those students/ What is scary is that most seminary students are in seminary to prepare for full time Christian ministry.

To me a high integrity level is foundational and non negotiable for ministry.

Having said that I believe that people (even us not so brilliant people) can and do come up independently with similar ideas / conclusions as that written by famous authors.

BTW, I find it difficult to accept that we have can be truly "original" as there is nothing really new under the sun! ;-)

But I do think that if I am accused of plagiarism because I happily by God's grace (and my own study) stumbled upon an idea or conclusion that someone else had written about but I was unaware of... I should have no problem defending myself in my own words even if it will not be as eloquent as an established author and scholar. Not to be able to is a sure sign of plagiarism.

Interestingly I use a lot of other people's stuff in sermons but I think it is more than fine as as someone said (I am freely paraphrasing) "Better to use someone else's good content than my own poor contents" :-)

But I do not think it is plagarism as I do let people know without much elaboration (as it would seem like name dropping)that the seed idea (if I can't quote the person) came from a particular source. I find people are happy with this. I would agree with you that this is not too hard to do even in a sermon as it is like making a simple footnote. It's plain laziness.

Not too hard to do say that I got this concept from ____ or I read in this commentary by ______. Or something like ... "I can't remember where I first read this concept but it was years ago. Somehow it has remained in the back of my mind for years and last month as I was reflecting on ____ this concept started to make sense...."

Kar Yong said...

Thanks, Paul, for sharing your thoughts and concern. I concur with you and the Reb that what we have written is not really something new, but we build upon the works of others, and we acknowledge our debt to those who have made scholarship possible.

But the real issue before us that really disturbs us is that students just copy and paste large chunks of materials in their papers - verbatim - and this can be as little as an entire paragraph to couple of pages in length and even to almost 80-90% of the paper. The major problem is that when caught, some students do not admit to the act of plagiarism or even exhibit any hint of remorse. Instead, they blame the lecturers for detecting and exposing them of plagiarism. Such kind of attitude is totally unacceptable. And this is our deep concern.

Paul Long said...

Not about seminaries but related ... some years ago I used to help one of my youth (non Christian) with some of his College assignments.

I basically helped by reading some of his assignments and made some editorial / stylistic comments (logical sequence etc), suggestions on what could be added etc.

Lo and behold, draft 2 was an obvious plagiarism of my helpful comments, often verbatim.

We had a long chat about plagiarism and how he could fail if he did it etc. But he could not see the point but tried to accommodate my silly thinking. Then a couple of weeks later, he came for help with another assignment and when I read it I knew it was cut and paste job (even if I hardly knew anything about the subject matter).I noted all of this with comments and arrows in red all over his paper. His response? He told me that this was what his lecturer taught him to do to pass his course (I will not name the College).

At our next meeting he showed me the proof - how he was taught (privately of course), even the website articles his lecturer had recommended he copy from (to give him a head start of course). Mind you it was not articles etc so he could research and footnote but so he could copy and pretend it was his own.

We remain firm friends and keep in touch even to this day but from that day on I refused to help him with any of his assignments. I am sure that somewhere one assignment submitted was actually mostly my work :-)!

Sze Zeng said...

Hi KY,

Thank for the alert. I'll be extra careful with insert footnotes etc when my studies start.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Paul,
Thanks for sharing your story.

I had one student who said this to my face: that he did not see anything wrong with what he had done and he could not understand why I made an issue out of it. He even said that was how he got through his undergraduate studies.

Blame it on the Malaysian education system or Malaysia Boleh?

Kar Yong said...

Hi Sze Zeng,
You should do fine if you remember this: if unsure FOOTNOTE it...hahaha.

pearlie said...

Make it compulsory to hv every student write a 2500 word paper on Plagiarism.

Perng Shyang said...

Therefore I'm busy checking my footnotes now...

Kar Yong said...

Hi Perng Shyang,
Don't check your footnotes...check the content of your paper.. :-)

Kar Yong said...

Good idea, Pearlie. But you know what, the students may plagiarise the paper on plagiarism!

Edward Pothier said...

You commented: "Good idea, Pearlie. But you know what, the students may plagiarise the paper on plagiarism!"

In the Higgion biblioblog article of 28-Jan-2009
there is an article entitled "A plagiarized anti-plagiarism statement?"

The first sentence of that blog post reads:
"The Chronicle of Higher Education reports today that Southern Illinois University may have plagiarized its definition of plagiarism."


Kar Yong said...

Hi Edward,
It sure is...

Gilbert Sim said...

I believe plagiarism begins with laziness and of course this leads to dishonesty. Nowadays, there is software in the market to check for plagiarism and it is pretty effective.

In my environment, I dare not even think of copying one “phrase” without giving footnote or credit to the sources. Any student caught with plagiarism is automatically assigned with a failing grade. Often times the transcript also accompanies with a (d) for dishonesty as well. This is true not only in seminary; it is also true in any other accredited institutions.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Gilbert,
Thanks for your comments - Yes, we are investing in plagiarism software - and I know it will cost us a bomb.

Cheat Grace said...

Well, even megachurch pastors plagiarise, check this out .. and in this case infringe on copyright too :)