Friday, October 14, 2011

Copy and perish

“HELL Week” is inaccurate but apt for this time: the last remaining weeks of the semester when some students wake up and find out there is a final grade due and it’s not a white rabbit they can pull out of a trick hat but a computation based on their outputs and performance, or lack of it.

Is it my imagination or am I seeing more uniforms in libraries and churches?

Not all, though, rely on their own labor or divine intervention.

Others fall back on a dependable alternative: “borrowing” someone else’s work to pass off as one’s own.

Hours silently passed with fellow teachers, poring over manuscripts, made me realize that Hell Week, in the Bright New Age of Copy and Paste, increasingly means tawdry assignations with an infernal triangle: student, teacher and Plagiarism.

Aside from being uncomfortable with threesome arrangements, I dislike the effort wasted by a naïve or ignorant second party on a third party, known and visible to only the first party.

That is because I line-edit manuscripts to offer suggestions for rewriting. In a memorable interlude, I ended up asking myself how could it help Diana Athill to know that I thought she botched her transitions? Or writer X, who did not believe the low grade I gave her essay on spirituality, ghostwritten unknowingly by Athill, an editor who reviewed for half a century the works of Jean Rhys and V.S. Naipaul?

At that time, of course, X did not argue. She could hardly blurt out that I only thought I had been reading her but was actually reviewing Athill, or Athill chopped up and stitched together with a horrific disregard for clarity and cohesion that calls to mind Hollywood and Dr. Frankenstein’s attempt to bring to life the Creature.

Years later, after I acquired a secondhand copy of the Spring 2006 issue of the Granta magazine and read Athill’s essay, “God and me,” I remembered the disbelief of X and had to belatedly agree with her. Had I known that she robbed Athill, I would not have failed her composition. I would have asked her to repeat the course.

Academic honesty and scholarly discipline should not be fully entrusted to chance. For years, teachers required several drafts to ease students into the process of prewriting, writing and rewriting. This method allows both writer and teacher to discover, familiarize and immerse oneself with the writer’s voice: the signature that reveals how a person uniquely thinks and expresses.

Now, detecting plagiarism has been updated by Copyscape and other software that can trace plagiarized text, even those buried deep in the 100th page of documents uploaded on or outside the Net.

According to Professor Rose Arong, who uses Copyscape to verify her suspicions, the program can assess if at least 10 percent of a work is copied, the minimum for establishing plagiarism. Without proper attribution of sources, a student has a hard choice to make: admitting and apologizing for committing plagiarism (reaping failure for that exercise) or denying any wrongdoing (with evidence of plagiarism, repetition of the course is the consequence).

Given the gravity of content theft and its consequences—academic failure, dishonor, a pall cast on future accomplishments—the investigation of plagiarism should be carried out only by a disinterested panel of experts. On no account should doubts or suspicions be posted on Facebook, possibly leading to trial by publicity and cyberbullying.

Failing grades and criticism, though, do not go to the heart of plagiarism: why does one claim someone else’s work? Plagiarism doesn’t render vulnerable only the lazy and deficient but also the most promising and passionate to copy words, images and other forms of expression. One eventually stumbles in the race to excel? The best form of praise is imitation? There is no original thought? Or the Internet ends all taboos?

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 9, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

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