Saturday, January 13, 2007

Of mouse and pen

"Every chapter I stole from somewhere else. Index I copy from old Vladivostok telephone directory." -- Tom Lehrer, "Lobachevsky"

Despite Lehrer's lampoon, there is no evidence that the real-life Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky was a plagiarist. But in the real world, there are many (who have probably never even heard of Lehrer) who take his advice to "plagiarise... only be sure always to call it please, 'research'" a bit too literally.

When a previously unknown Kaavya Vishwanathan does it, it makes headlines. When The Hindu's movie reviewer Gautaman Bhaskaran does it, it is quickly forgotten. When Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz does it, it is largely ignored (and he is exonerated by a former Harvard president).

So what does one do when an undergraduate student does it?

Now and then I take on undergraduates who want to do a short-term project. Three times now I have had students submitting documents to me (twice a project report, once a project proposal) which were crude cut-and-pastes from web sites or review articles. Thanks to the internet and Google, it is easy to do this (I'm told this is how a lot of homework is now done in schools). But Google works for me too -- it helps me confirm my suspicions. (Why would I suspect anything? Perhaps because, after all, I am familiar with these students' command of written English...)

The first time, the students were suitably abashed and turned in more original material. The second time, the student didn't seem to think it was wrong, and later emailed me saying his college doesn't object and it's "only" a preliminary report; luckily he decided not to continue working with me. As for the third time, I'm still awaiting a response... but the copying was so blatant (and it was from a review article that I had supplied!) that, again, I suspect the student didn't think it was wrong.

Why do they all seem to think it is acceptable, even expected, to write with a mouse? Is it because our educational system encourages students to "mug up" answers and reproduce them verbatim?


Tabula Rasa said...

i've caught phd students at it as well.

Anonymous said...

Yes, they do it because teachers encourage mugging up in schools, and because the idea of originality and the practice of giving credit to other people's work is not introduced early enough. Even in college, it seems as if there is not enough emphasis on proper referencing. As one of them said, his "college doesn't object".

When was the first time that you wrote a paper with references? Was it in school or college? Just curious.

Rahul said...

TR - luckily I haven't found PhD students doing it; perhaps after a year in a research environment they absorb the idea that it's wrong.

anon - the first time I wrote something was with end-references was probably in college (not sure, though). However, I was always careful to attribute direct quotes and to otherwise say things in my own words. (In fact "write in your own words" was a requirement in the language courses.)

Even with "textbook definitions" where conventional wisdom said use the exact same words for Newton's third law, I figured Newton wrote it in Latin so what do the English words matter... I never topped my class but I always did reasonably well in public exams.

I grew up in an academic environment, and encountered the occasional good science or math teacher at every level, so my case may not be typical.