x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Copying the work of others is often done subconsciously

With all the information we are subjected to in the modern world, sometimes plagiarism just 'happens'.

Hurrah – the truth is out. Students at Harvard University in the US are like the rest of us after all, not the demigods we have always imagined them to be. OK, they are brilliant academically, some are sports superstars, musical prodigies and whatnot, but Harvard is investigating a case where about 100 students – wait for it – were allegedly involved in a cheating scandal.

I was whiling time away on the internet when a recent article in Time magazine, titled “Harvard Cheating Scandal: Is Academic Dishonesty on the Rise?”, caught my eye. It was a delicious moment, and not because I experienced some sort of malicious thrill at the punishment any of the students may receive.

I was pleased because many teenagers today are monstrously burdened with the weight of “Great Expectations” when it comes to university decisions. It is simply a relief to see that some of these clever young people, clever enough to gain admission into the Ivy League, are human, after all. They do experience human emotions of uncertainty and insecurity, making them resort to copying down others’ work without attributing it to the sources.

In the Harvard case, the students had appeared to have worked out answers to an open-book, take-home exam by discussing them with each other or plagiarising their friends’ work. Plagiarising is extremely appealing to teenagers; laziness is an inherent part of our genetic make-up. The profusion of essays available freely online makes it much easier. There’s an oft-quoted case where a science applicant to UK universities mentioned that his interest in chemistry was ignited – literally – when he set fire to his pyjamas as a child. It might have been an attention-grabbing beginning to his application – if more than two hundred applicants hadn’t claimed the same thing.

Easily misled teenagers may appear to be more susceptible to the charms of taking credit for other people’s work, at least in the eyes of that excessively pious population subgroup, the adults. Of course, the grown-ups’ hands are stained much redder. The reputable magazine that published the piece on the Harvard cheating scandal has had to contend with a scandal of its own – the Time writer Fareed Zakaria’s alleged plagiarism of Jill Lepore’s work.

A few years ago, a highly readable novel was recalled on charges of containing paragraphs similar to ones in a number of other books. Its studious protagonist has a sole ambition in life – to get into Harvard. When she is rejected on the grounds of not being well-rounded enough, she vows to morph into a partying socialite and impress the folk at her dream college. The title was How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life by the Harvard graduate Kaavya Viswanathan.

It is probable that these writers had read something, forgotten about it, then subconsciously incorporated the sentences into their own work. Nevertheless, there is comfort in the fact that the most prolific authors or successful students can yield to passing off others’ work as their own. If Oscar Wilde could resist everything except temptation, you can hardly expect us lesser mortals to fare better.


The writer is a 17-year-old student in Dubai