A student at the University of Kent who got zapped for plagiarism right before his final exams is suing the university for negligence, on the grounds that he’s been cheating in exactly the same way throughout his studies there, and they’ve never said anything about it.My first reaction was “Nice try, kid.” On second thought, he does have a point. It’s not enough of a point, but he has one. Here’s the story:
A student who admits downloading material from the internet for his degree plans to sue his university for negligence. Michael Gunn claims his university should have warned him his actions were against the regulations.The school’s claiming that all students at Kent are given clear guidelines about what constitutes plagiarism. In the School of English, where Gunn studied, this information is conveyed in the faculty handbook and the departmental handbook. Students are given copies of both, and are also encouraged to attend the university’s workshops on study skills.
The Times Higher Education Supplement reports that he was told on the eve of his final exams that he would get no marks for his course work.
The University of Kent at Canterbury says students are warned about plagiarism.Michael Gunn, a 21-year-old English student, told the Times Higher: “I hold my hands up. I did plagiarise. I never dreamt it was a problem. I can see there is evidence I have gone against the rules, but they have taken all my money for three years and pulled me up the day before I finished. If they had pulled me up with my first essay at the beginning and warned me of the problems and consequences, it would be fair enough. But all my essays were handed back with good marks, and no one spotted it.”
I’m not impressed. I’ve worked with university students. If one student in twenty sat down and read all the way through those handbooks, I’ll be surprised. It can be hard to get students to read all the way through a two-page document that explains how and why the university wants to give them money. Most students will only read a handbook if they hear other students talk about reading it.
I have to ask: Has there been a revolution in student handbooks since the 1980s? Because the last time I looked, most student handbooks were a mixture of hot air, vague benevolence, pious wishes, counsels of perfection, slabs of prose copied from earlier handbooks, stern warnings inserted by the legal department (useful only for generating FUD, since they were probably framed in response to a situation that came and went five years ago, which the current crop of students has never heard of), plus some reasonably useful advice that isn’t uniformly applicable to all the students, but isn’t unambiguously labeled in terms of which students it does apply to, and thus generates even more FUD—in the small number of students who actually read it.
Maybe they’ve gotten better.
If they haven’t, and if you therefore have an admittedly hypothetical document that mixes Ad astra per aspera (never literally true), You should approach your studies at the university as though they were a full-time job (a useful model, but not to be taken literally in all particulars), If you are having difficulties with your studies, your instructor will be available to help you during his regular office hours (true, insofar as it is translated correctly), and All coursework materials handed in must be your own original work, it may not be clear that that last one is a concrete and enforceable rule.
Let me make it clear that I’m not impressed with Mr. Gunn, either. I’m sure he knows plenty of things the university hasn’t explained to him, and I suspect that plagiarism is among them. I don’t recall ever having to have plagiarism explained to me; and I notice that the BBC news story didn’t feel it was necessary to explain the concept either.
The only place where I think he has an argument is his class work to date. That should have been the real measure of his scholarship. He says he’s been cheating like this all along, and that his instructors have been giving him passing grades all along. Now, given his evident attitude, he can’t have been a very gifted plagiarist. Few students are. Unless they’re better-than-average writers, it’s often enough just to monitor their semicolons: If they come and go, the student’s cheating. And if the student’s an English major like Mr. Gunn, sooner or later they’re bound to plagiarize something a more experienced scholar will recognize in a flash. When you spot something like that, you go back and check the student’s other work. It’s rare for someone to cheat only once.
That’s all pretty basic, so if Mr. Gunn has been openly plagiarizing online material for years, I think Kent University is not only entitled to feel embarrassed about it, but is arguably obliged to do so. They should have known. They say they’re now “running a pilot scheme which uses plagiarism detection software to analyse student work,” which I expect is how they caught Mr. Gunn in the first place; but they still should have known. The same internet that’s available to the students is available to the instructors.
Things may have changed, but that doesn’t mean they’re different. Before there was the internet there was the library, and if you thought someone was cheating but you couldn’t spot the source by eye and ear, you had to hunt for the book they got it out of. The real trick is to take plagiarism seriously when you see it happening.
And Mr. Gunn’s case? I’m all for taking him at his word. Reinstate him as a student at the University, give him three years’ free tuition, and let him re-do all that coursework he says he cheated on. He’s paid for that education. It’s only fair to see that he finally gets it.