No excuse for plagiarism

Kelly Yang says teachers will lose the battle against the rising scourge of plagiarism if society begins to tacitly condone the practice

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2012, 7:38am

What is the value of originality? Apparently, not much, if the recent reinstatement of journalist Fareed Zakaria is any indication. Last month, Zakaria admitted plagiarising the work of another writer, Jill Lepore, resulting in a suspension at Time magazine, where his column ran, and CNN, where he hosts a show and whose website ran parts of that column. About a week later, both suspensions were lifted after the companies concluded that it was an "unintentional error and an isolated incident".

As a columnist and teacher, I find Zakaria's reinstatement disturbing. There is no way it was an "unintentional error"; he got lazy and did what every college freshman has tried to do or has thought about trying to do at some point.

The fact that Zakaria, a respected journalist with millions of readers and fans, was juggling various columns, deadlines and television programmes should not give him a free pass on plagiarism. I say this not just as a writer but also as a teacher who fights a daily war against this disease. Put simply, plagiarism is the bane of my existence.

When I first started teaching, I rarely came across plagiarised essays. If children were plagiarising for school, they certainly were not turning the copied works in to me. Fast forward seven years and the scene has changed. Students now plagiarise even for after-school classes and it is especially widespread in college applications. Several times a month, I have to conduct "plagiarism interventions" - a sit-down where I put a student's essay on the table, look him or her in the eye and gently ask them to admit they plagiarised. You'd be amazed how determined some are to stick to their story - even in the face of solid evidence. What's even more astonishing is that my classes are all after-school elective courses.

If students are cheating on courses which are not even required, imagine the amount of plagiarism that goes on in secondary schools and universities. Last week, Harvard University announced it was investigating 125 undergraduates for copying from one another on a recent take-home examination. That's half the entire class of 250 students.

Here in Hong Kong, an online company was found this year to have been ghostwriting essays for students for the past 10 years. Plagiarism is particularly grave on the mainland, where a consulting company in Beijing found that 90 per cent of US-university-bound Chinese students had falsified recommendations and 70 per cent had other people write their college applications.

As the list of famous plagiarists gets longer and the repercussions get smaller, it's simply a matter of time before teachers the world over throw up their hands and give up, and plagiarism interventions are replaced with symposiums offering plagiarism tips.

Plagiarism is a mould that eats away at the core of prose. If ignored, it will spread, permeate the minds of the young and the old, and proliferate until that is all there is. The only way to stop the mould is to not condone it - not after the first isolated incident, or the 50th.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.