John Horvath on Thu, 10 Jul 1997 22:13:53 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> The Plagiarists Point

The Plagiarists Point
by John Horvath

What I am about to say, or, more precisely, write, will come as a shock
to many, no doubt, especially when you take into consideration my
profession and background as both a writer and educator. This
controversial statement is as follows: students should be encouraged to

Permit me an explanation.

Educators in Hungary are standing upon a threshold, in where they are
able to provide students with the maximum in knowledge and skills
required by today's hustle and hurry world. Information technology,
namely the use of the various networking tools available, such as WWW
(the web), FTP (file transfer protocol), gopher, etc., as well as simple
e-mail, has the potential of raising standards and the quality of
education in the region. This, in face of a crisis faced by many
educational institutions throughout Central and Eastern Europe due to
budget cuts and downsizing.

Unfortunately, although the Ministry of Education and Culture in Hungary
has ambitions plans for connecting secondary schools to the Internet by
the end of this century, teachers are still skeptical about computers in
the classroom. Most of these teachers have been in the field for at
least fifteen years, and almost none of them use the networking tools
available to them. What makes the situation worse are the myths they
possess about the Internet, such as it being a hotbed of anarchy and

Consequently, Hungary's post-secondary institutions are marred by wasted
potential that is mainly due to the ignorance of educators. For example,
in the English Department of Budapest's main university for the Arts and
Humanities (ELTE), teachers refused to consider a student's request to
establish a database of essays that would be accessible by students
through the Internet. Meanwhile, at a teacher training college in
Budapest, one teacher compared the usefulness of computers as a tool for
learning to that of telephone sex. Outside of Budapest, as in Miskolc
(eastern Hungary) and Veszprem (south-west Hungary), university students
are dimly aware of the fact that they have Internet access.

The fear most teachers have of computers and the Internet is that it
makes it easy for students to copy essays and term papers. What is
ironic is that these same teachers themselves have most probably
plagiarized their way to a diploma and beyond. It wouldn't be an
exaggeration to say that about 80% of all intellectual work produced in
the country is either intentionally or unintentionally plagiarized.
Foreign teachers in Hungary are astonished at how widespread the
practice is.

For students it is hard to take the issue of plagiarism seriously when
they see the rules broken unashamedly by those who are admonishing them.
In one instance, a student lost her faith in the educational system when
her adviser warned against plagiarism while showing her an example of
her own dissertation, which contained entire sections plagiarized from a
book the student recognized. In another case, a head of department (who
also happens to be the dean) put his name as co-author of a handbook
written by a former colleague (a foreigner no longer living in Hungary)
even though he had no part in it at all.

Attempts have been made by teachers (mainly foreign guest teachers) to
introduce some sort of guidelines concerning plagiarism, but to no
avail. Plagiarism is so entrenched within the system that only radical
action can bring about the change needed. It appears the only way to do
so is by utilizing a hybrid Camus-Cartesian approach, best described as
"reductio ad absurdium" (reduction to the absurd).

By encouraging students to plagiarize -- through an explanation of what
material can be had on the Internet and how to use various search
engines to find the material they are looking for, and by showing them
how to download such material and then teach them basic word processing
techniques in order to finish up the material acquired -- only in this
way can plagiarism reach such absurd proportions that the issue would
have to then be dealt with constructively.

The value of such a radical approach is not so much in reforming
Hungary's educational standards, but in the fact that students would end
up receiving a comprehensive education viz. the use of information
technology. Subsequently, it would also force teachers to take computers
into account as a teaching/learning tool. In turn, they would end up
acknowledging the benefits the Internet can bring, for not only does it
expand a student's access to resources, it would also make their jobs
much easier. For instance, teachers would no longer have to guess as to
whether a paper has been plagiarized or not, and then go through the
task of looking up the library and hunting down the book from where the
information came. Thanks to the Internet, the use of appropriate
keywords can locate any such material within minutes. Of course, this
would require teachers to be trained in using information technology,
something which many fear. As the saying goes, you can't teach an old
dog new tricks -- at least some of them.

What educators in Hungary fail to realize is that by becoming more
proficient in using networking tools (e.g. Internet search engines),
students wishing to plagiarize would then have to be a lot more careful
in covering their tracks. In other words, they would have to copy
material from a wider variety of sources and rewrite some of the
passages in order to better hide words and phrases. In the end, this
process would eventually lead students to the production of original

This process was best described by Arthur Koestler in his book "The
Ghost in the Machine". In it he deals with the commonly perceived
problem of compulsive lying among young children, and boldly makes the
assertion that lying can be an expression of creativity. By not
threatening the child or using one's authority to confront a child when
s/he is lying, but instead by trying to pick out the logical
inconsistencies of the tale, the child becomes aware of her/his actions
while at the same time is given a chance to mentally explore her/his
options. As a child grows older, s/he eventually comes to the
realization that it is easier to tell the truth rather than go through
the arduous task of creating a feasible lie.

Plagiarism can work in the same way. To be a good plagiarist is a lot
more work than to be original. After a while most students would come to
realize this. Furthermore, the process by which they come to this
realization is what educators are trying to teach students who have to
write an essay or term paper in the first place; that is, to get a wide
variety of sources and put the information in your own words. Thus, when
penalizing students for plagiarism, it should be not because they
plagiarized per se, but because they did so badly.

In light of all this, there is an issue here that has to be raised (or
if it has been raised, it has to be raised more vocally), something
which is important not only for educators but also for all those who may
become (or already are) information brokers, that is, people with
experience and skills in information technology and use these skills in
order to get information for another person, be it a client (i.e. for a
fee) or just a friend (i.e. for free). The issue in question has to do
with the ethics of information brokerage: should information brokers (be
they teachers, professionals, or whatever) be concerned only with
information access and retrieval, helping their clients in getting what
they need without questioning the implications that might lie behind the
use (or misuse) of such information?

After pondering over this question, it has to be concluded that
information brokerage falls into the same category in where one finds
the likes of lawyers. Lawyers work for their clients under terms of
confidentiality, and while they can make suggestions, it is their task
in the end to represent the interests of their client. Going further, as
an educator (as opposed to that of a commercial information broker), the
role is perhaps a bit different, more in tune to that of a doctor, in
where a Hippocratic oath is taken -- one in which saving a life is the
overriding consideration. Accordingly, the overriding consideration for
educators, or Hippocratic oath, is to provide students with the
necessary skills and knowledge for their future.

In Hungary, it is precisely this future that is being compromised. As
Dr. Martin Luther King once aptly put it: "There is nothing wrong with a
traffic law which says you have to stop for a red light. But when a fire
is raging, the fire truck goes right through that red light, and normal
traffic better get out of its way. Or, when a man is bleeding to death,
the ambulance goes through those red lights at top speed." In other
words, we have a duty to our conscience. Encouraging students to
plagiarize, therefore, is a strategy for educational reform (and, in a
sense, social change) which is as forceful as an ambulance when its
sirens begin to wail and its lights begin to flash.


Note: this article may be plagiarized by Hungarian students for
non-commercial, academic purposes only. Otherwise, please contact my
publisher or send me money.

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