Friday, 13 January 2012

Marking mayhem

OK, the vast majority of essays I mark are honestly and carefully written. Some are excellent, many are good, too many aren't very good, from which I can learn a lot about my own teaching practice as well as about the students.

But I'm not talking about them today. Instead, I offer you a few very basic tips to help you avoid falling into the trap of PLAGIARISM - or at least how not to get caught.

1. If you cut and paste somebody else's work from the internet, try to change the typeface to match the one you're using.

2. Leaving in the hyperlinks is often a giveaway. The same goes for the source's footnote numbers, especially if you haven't used any footnotes of your own.

3. Don't cite the first editions of Kant, Gramsci, Kierkegaard, Hegel or Marx. Most of them weren't written in a language you read. We don't have them in the library.

4. Do cite books we actually have. Very few things annoy me than references which in fact hide a Google search leading to a single sentence lifted from Google Books. It's really obvious that you haven't read any more of the book than that, and therefore don't understand it. If I haven't read it, or have read it but not understood it (looking at you, Deleuze), I'm going to be a teensy bit suspicious if you're rattling it off with casual abandon.

5. Unless you're a very special individual indeed, turning in work which is instantly publishable in journals which wouldn't accept a bunch of flowers from me, let alone a paper, will raise my suspicions. First-years who discuss Irigaray's theory of phallogocentrism in an essay on media representation are going to have to work rather hard to persuade me that they haven't nicked it.

6. Make sure the bibliography matches the essay.

7. Try not to start essays with (as a colleague recently read) 'In my previous paper on this subject (University of Oxford, 2007)…'.

8. If your English and punctuation is a little bit shaky, throwing in paragraphs of Judith Butler-style sophistication is always going to look a bit dubious. If you don't use capital letters in book titles and don't know that 'media' is a plural, adding post- or neo- to words, or scattering your text with 'discursive' tends to seem slightly suspicious.

9. If your web sources are things like 'megacheat', 'essaycheat' and '': you've probably cheated. If you're happily nicking AS-level students coursework, you should reassess the level of your abilities. If it says AS on the tin, it's unlikely to be adequate for university, leaving aside issues of honesty. It was very nice of Kelly Brown to put her coursework on the internet, but you shouldn't be handing it in as your own university essay.

10. There's an incredibly simple way to avoid being accused of plagiarism. If you didn't write that sentence, use these things: ' '. Alternatively, you could add 'As X asserts…' at the head of sentences you've paraphrased. Bingo: instant credit for doing research.

The other way to fail an essay is to say things like 'women who have worked in pornography deserve no sympathy if they are subsequently raped'. Despite the correct use of 'subsequent'.

Back to the good essays. We know that you aren't professional academics. We know that academic writing is hard, and that ideas aren't always easy to grasp. We appreciate a clear statement of what you think and how it applies to texts. We don't expect you to have read everything in the field. We can tell when you've put the effort in and we look kindly on you even if you're not quite there.

Tips for success: if you're struggling, talk to us. Talk in the seminars, which is where we try to identify the chewy bits of a subject, talk to us in our office hours, stop us in the corridors. We love enthusiasm and we're always happy to explain things further. That's what we're here for.

Plagiarists tend to split into a few categories: those who don't quite understand that education isn't data-mining information; those who panic because they haven't attended, or managed their time properly; and those who are cynically ready to cut any corners because the qualification is far more important than the process. For the first two groups, the failure is partly ours: we need to explain why academic honesty and effort is worthwhile. For the latter, you're not only cheating us and your colleagues: you're gaining nothing from your time here.

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