How plagiarism ended my academic career

UCT

My academic career was ended by plagiarism.

A student, an English Lit third year who had been unremarkable for the whole semester, had produced a final essay full of suspiciously glittering prose. It was not impossible but it was unlikely, rather like an off-key shower crooner suddenly singing like Bing.

I googled her first sentence and found that she had copied and pasted with abandon. No further questions, your honour. I gave her zero and wasn’t surprised when I was later invited to state my case in the administration block at the University of Cape Town.

I had expected an office, a clerk, an academic or two. Instead a visibly frightened apparatchik led me into a large wood-panelled room in which sat the accused, her father and two men in suits.

One of them looked familiar and just as I remembered where I’d seen him – in a newspaper, commenting on some high-profile lawsuit – they were introduced as the accused’s legal representation.

The lawyers subtly began implying that their client had been a victim of a kind of assault: on her character and self-esteem but mostly on her hopes of graduating and living a happy life.

The perpetrator of this attack? The incompetent tutor – yours truly.

It felt like an elaborate prank but even as I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the situation I realised that I was being cross-examined, seriously and well, and that it was working. I was tripping over answers. I was hesitating, vacillating, crumbling. I was looking incompetent. I tried to regroup and returned to the essay. The copying-and-pasting was indisputable, I said. And that’s when I got my first (and, I hope, last) first-hand taste of what the law can do.

The famous lawyer brushed the essay aside with a contemptuous hand: it was, he implied, immaterial. Of much more concern was his client’s plagiarism declaration – a signed document all students have to attach to submitted work, declaring that they understand what plagiarism is. Had the accused attached such a declaration to her essay? And was I aware that university policy barred me from marking any essay that didn’t have a plagiarism declaration attached?

I had to concede that it was possible she had not attached one. And yes, I knew the policy, but I had been marking late at night and I had felt under pressure to finish crunching through the pile without leaving any loose ends. Besides, I tended to downplay the declarations as I assumed that people in tertiary education had learned enough to understand the difference between right and wrong.

There was an almost audible rolling of eyes. Assumed?! This reckless cad had been willing to destroy the reputation and future career of this innocent with a mere assumption! But they had got what they wanted, and were ready to deliver their coup de grâce. Their client, they revealed, had not, in fact, signed a plagiarism form. Therefore, according to the university’s own laws, the essay should never have been marked. It should not even have been read; not even touched. Someone had done wrong, to be sure, but that someone was me. I had discovered plagiarism that, by law, should have remained undiscovered forever.

It made a kind of ludicrous sense and as I sat there, punch-drunk, I felt grim admiration for the lawyers. Before my very eyes they had turned white into black, day into night and lies into truth.

The student got a comforting hug from her father and I was dismissed from the room into a blanket of silence. The university asked me nothing, told me nothing. A while later I heard through the grapevine that she had graduated. I left UCT soon after that, figuring that if I was going to earn the same as teenaged babysitters and envelope-lickers, I might as well do it far away from plagiarists and attack lawyers.

This week, as lawyers are thrust onto our pages again, I am tempted to surrender to easy and fashionable dislike. It’s an old prejudice – Shakespeare said, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” and no doubt got a roar from the groundlings – and it feels superficially legitimate condemnation of people who seem to pull dirty rabbits out of sordid hats. And yet perhaps this boils down to simply shooting the messenger. Perhaps I’m just avoiding the daunting fact that the law is all-powerful but almost entirely opaque to me; that, when I stand before its impenetrable surface, all I have is assumption and emotion. And the most dangerous assumption I have is that the law always serves the outcome I believe to be just.

*

First published in The Times and TimesLive

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23 comments

    1. The lawyers may have effectively been arguing that without the declaration the student couldn’t be presumed to understand what plagiarism is, and so couldn’t be penalised for plagiarised work. The English Department’s policy may also simply have been vague on what would happen without a plagiarism declaration (should the student be asked to submit the essay with a declaration, for example). The combination of procedural vagueness and intimidating lawyers may have been enough for the Department simply to back down and not take this essay into account in determining the student’s final mark. It’s really a cautionary tale about ensuring that the polices and procedures surrounding plagiarism are as clear and watertight as possible.

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  1. I hope that student reads this and feels some level of shame for depriving future generations of a really good teacher. She probably won’t, though. I’m sorry this happened. My biggest sadness is that there are parents out there that will defend their child through something like this. If my child plagiarised I would whack him on his arse regardless of his age. But then, I come from a family of academics. Integrity matters to us. Ho-hum.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve had the same experience with lawyers turning black into white using technicalities to dismiss evidence that was in my favour, etc. After that, I lost all faith in the legal system. Those that can afford the best lawyers are probably the ones winning their cases, whether what they’ve done was right or not, it’s like a game of chess, if you’re inexperienced at playing the game, you’ll probably lose, no matter which side you’re playing on.

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  3. It used to be so much easier in the old days. A student handed me a composition which she claimed was hers (This was before the days of signed declarations). She was a stupid student and suddenly she produced a masterpiece. Overnight I realised it was a piece by Poulenc, ever so slightly re-arranged. I informed the deputy Vice-Chancellor. He came down, listened to the two versions side by side, and said “She’s OUT!” No further discussion.

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  4. I had a similar experience, the men in suits etc, at CPUT, the thing that saved and validated my failing of the student in question was that I was able to prove that the student had not attended 80% of my lectures and, as such, had not fulfilled an obligation for the course

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  5. Thank you for putting that out Tom. As a senior lecturer at the the then University of Natal (Pietermaritzburg), I found myself in pretty much the same situation over 10 years ago. Needless to say, I am no longer in academia…

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  6. Our essential failing is to assume that the law has anything to with justice. That legislation and fairness go hand in hand. The moral rarely need rely on the law, those of dubious character have their attorney on speed dial. In this instance however one has to question why a blanket declaration at the beginning of one’s studies wouldn’t be sufficient to insure original content, why should it be required that one submits such a declaration with every essay handed in?

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  7. It really sounds like your department (or something of which the department was a part) hung you out to dry. Any such matter should have gone to a student disciplinary tribunal of some kind first, and you should never have been sprung by lawyers without warning or institutional support.

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  8. As a lawyer I can tell you that the defense was incredibly weak. That does not make the lawyer who presented it bad. In fact on the contrary, the fact that he succeeded makes him a good lawyer. The villain is the University who hung you out to dry thus subverting academic freedom and the pursuit of academic excellence on a scale that made the student’s plagiarism paltry by comparison. Those responsible for this infamy that was your hornswoggling should have been fired. I am afraid the rot lies within.

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  9. Its said to hear stories like yours. The institution should have supported you all the way. You did what is right considering your moral perspective regarding plegiarism. I can’t imagine how u felt after seeing that student graduating after what she did.

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  10. I have been at two different large academic institutions. In one, I got no departmental support because the student had a famous business grandfather. In both, I found the most senior staff run absolutely scared of lawyers. As soon as lawyers get involved, they fold, regardless of what the lawyers actually say. They have had many past experiences where their lawyers are not as good as those their students can afford. So no, it is not because the defense lawyer was good; it is because historically institutional lawyers have been poor.

    The baldfaced sheer cheek of students is what strikes me the most.

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  11. The same thing happened to me at UKZN. The student disputed and I pulled up the article on my pc to show him. He could not deny it then. But nothing was done about it anyway. UCT should have given you more support. Shame on them for supporting theft.

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  12. Back in 2013 I was busted for plagiarism at UCT. Twice. Daddy didn’t come to my rescue. It signalled the end of MY time at UCT, not the lecturers who caught me. I finished my studies part time via UNISA and eventually repaired the damage I had caused.

    Having to clean up my own mess taught me a sense of accountability, and that invaluable “the world genuinely doesn’t give a shit about your feelings” lesson that everyone has to learn sooner or later. Preferably sooner.

    The world is full of entitled brats with parents who constantly cover for them. Just know that that sooner or later a time will come when daddy won’t be there to bail her out, and that invaluable lesson will be taught. You may not be there to see it, but rather assured that it will happen.

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  13. Yes, one doesn’t stand a chance.. ?. and the emotional stress….enough to make one physically sick as well… to go through years of fighting them… but think… if you DID challenge them in court… Isn’t plagiarism a crime in general? Imagine if you DID win and you even got LOTS of money. Then you surely wouldn’t have felt so bitter still. Maybe next time when something grossly unfair happens to me, as have happened in the last ten years in my places of work, I won’t roll over and play dead again… maybe I’ll find myself a good street lawyer. Even if it takes years.

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