A spot of plagiarism, then off to the pub

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THERE is a famous story - almost certainly apocryphal - about an Oxford undergraduate who, in the midst of a horrendous crisis over his weekly essay, visited the 'alumni library', where benevolent former students deposited their notes and essays. Having uncovered a script that almost matched the title set by his tutor, the student scurried back to his room and copied it virtually word for word.

After discovering the following day that the essay had been awarded only a 'third', he decided to protest. 'I must say I thought the essay deserved better than that, sir,' he said indignantly. 'Yes,' replied his tutor. 'So did I when I wrote it 20 years ago.'

Over the past 100 years there have been just three cases in Oxford of students being stripped of their degrees for plagiarism. Yet by strange coincidence, two of these cases have occurred in the past six months. First, there was Gary Hughes, a postgraduate researching 18th-century American politics, who had his doctorate taken away because much of it was based on work previously published elsewhere.

This month has seen a case involving Thomas Sanders, a theology student at Westminster College, Oxford, who was stripped of his Masters degree for submitting a thesis that bore striking similarities to material published in the mid-Eighties. Not only has Mr Sanders faced the ignominy of having his 20,000-word thesis withdrawn from the university's Bodleian Library, but also the shame of being 'outed' in the Oxford University Gazette, the academic equivalent of making a front-page appearance in the News of the World.

Bearing in mind that the examiners who awarded me a D Phil - Oxford's equivalent of a PhD - may be reading this, I should point out that never have I published the work of others with the intention of passing it off as my own. My thesis may not be brilliant, but it is my own. Yet I still feel a little sympathy both for Mr Hughes and Mr Sanders.

Passing judgment on their cases, a charitable jury might even let them off. For the university's examination decrees merely state that, in the case of a Masters degree, the student makes a 'worthwhile' contribution to learning, while they should make a 'significant and substantial' contribution if they wish to pick up a D Phil. The word 'original' was struck out of the requirements in 1964; even so, plagiarism is clearly not in the spirit of the decrees, nor in keeping with the ideal of scholarly enterprise. It is cheating, pure and simple.

Yet it is hardly surprising that plagiarism occurs, given the nature of academic life at Oxford, Cambridge or anywhere else for that matter. It is perhaps surprising that more cases have not come to light.

Part of the problem may lie in the tutorial system itself - the method of one-to-one teaching and weekly essays that many consider among Oxbridge's greatest strengths. Most students, rather than sitting in a tutorial, would prefer to be down the pub, while most supervisors would rather be conducting their own research. Undergraduates rarely go to tutorials in search of intellectual titillation; they just want a nod of approval from their supervisor - a collection of which goes to make a satisfactory end-of-term report.

Gaining that nod of approval involves demonstrating that you have done enough work; and demonstrating that involves cramming your essay with as many secondary sources as possible. It is the easiest way so far devised of showing you have spent all week down the pub. The seeds of serial plagiarism are thus planted early on.

For postgraduates, whose main purpose in life is to generate original research, the art of scholastic survival is more problematic, not least because the academic pressures upon them are more intense. Chipping away at the coal-face of knowledge can be a cruelly frustrating task, for new empirical evidence is fiendishly difficult to find.

Then there are seminars to get through, where the main aim of your fellow students is to undermine your intellectual credibility. Then tutorials, where your supervisor - usually a world-class expert - will try to make you and your work seem completely irrelevant. And finally, 'writing up', when you must organise and articulate the information gathered over two years of research into a coherent, and preferably brilliant, thesis.

Is it any wonder, then, that the odd postgraduate, aware that supervisors and examiners stand little hope of keeping up-to-date with current literature, are tempted to steal other people's work? Especially as technological advances have made it possible for students - who, after all, are often more computer-literate than their professors - to access material from all over the world.

It is not as if professional academics set a very good example. As an undergraduate, I was horrified to discover that one of my supervisors had lifted an opening line from one of my essays. (What he probably didn't realise is that I had lifted it from Jane Austen.) I know other students whose intellectual property has been stolen, and used by supervisors in their own lectures and publications.

I don't know the motives of either Mr Hughes or Mr Sanders. Perhaps they were overcome by the pressures of work, or simply afflicted by that common Oxbridge sense of insecurity. Or maybe they simply bumped into the tutor I met during my first week at Oxford. 'Stealing off one author is plagiarism,' he told me, staring into an empty wine glass. 'Stealing off a few authors, on the other hand, is history.'