Remember Dr Raj Persaud? He used to be on television, a reliable, medically qualified psychiatrist who could explain complex medical issues on the Richard and Judy sofa, without sounding patronising. He also presented, All in the Mind on Radio 4. Then, in his book, On the Edge of the Couch, he admitted plagiarising Professor Thomas Blass, of the University of Maryland, and material from the academic’s website.
He also admitted using material plagiarised from an article by Professor Stephen Kant in a piece he wrote for the Independent in the same year.
Persaud paid dearly. He was suspended for three months by the GMC for dishonesty and resigned from his position of Consultant Psychiatrist at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust. His media career died overnight.
A sketch of mine was stolen once. I’d gone on a course and read this sketch out. People laughed which was pleasing, but a few months later, I heard the sketch on a radio comedy. My initial reaction was delight. Somebody thought my work good enough to steal! Then I was called by one of my fellow attendees on the writing course. He expressed anger that somebody had stolen my work. I was touched at his support but shrugged off the actual stealing. ‘Why?’ he said. ‘It’s hard to write funny stuff. The idea of some lazy knob nicking it and not only not paying you but not giving you credit – it’s despicable.’ He was right of course. But the person who stole it worked for a large organisation. What was I going to do? Never give away my best material or talk about work in progress that’s what.
We’ve had a case of suspected plagiarism in the university where I teach. End of term papers in, including a very good one from a student who seemed to hate the course. She missed a lot of classes. And when she did bother to attend, she would sit with a gloomy facial expression, never answer questions, never share her work, never proffer an opinion. She had difficulty in forming a basic sentence and her grammar was poor. I sent her to a tutor who offered private tuition – all free. Later I found the emails between her and the tutor who was doing his best to squeeze her in. I can do Monday, or Tuesday morning, and I could also squeeze you in on Friday? Any of those any good?
Busy on Mondays came the student’s reply. She attended a few sessions then cried off the rest.
And yet her final piece was suspiciously error free, and well written. A 2:1 from a student who was barely capable of getting a third. Her marker, Alice emailed me and asked if I could read it as she was having a hard time believing the student had written it. I read it. The student in question could not have written this. We put it through turnitin. Nothing. Not bought wholesale. Probably.
We asked the student to come in and gently questioned her. Asked her to take us through the process of writing it. She said she came across the story in a newspaper and developed it. She had asked her friends and her dad. They had given her ‘advice’ but she had written it. Alice asked her to go away and find the early drafts.
Alice and I looked at each other when she had gone. There were channels we needed to go through – forms to fill in. All very time consuming and we were in the middle of marking anyway. We asked her to email some rough drafts of the story – early drafts and she was willing to do so. ‘She’s just had huge amounts of help,’ said Alice, ‘and maybe didn’t realise this level of help is plagiarism.’
If she could produce early versions of the final story this would add weight to her claim that she just had a breakthrough.
A few days later the ‘first drafts’ appeared. Two pages of typed notes on where she got the idea from – bullet points and links to journalism pieces about the subject she had chosen. Something she had probably written after our meeting. Not what we had asked for at all.
Alice thanked the student but wrote back pointing out that these papers were not first drafts. She attached them to the plagiarism form and sent the whole lot off to the member of staff who dealt with plagiarism.
I talked to a longer serving member of staff about it. ‘Oh I hate it when I know the student has plagiarised,’ he said. ‘Unless you can prove it’ through matching chunks of text then they get away with it. And you have to fill in all these forms. And of course it always happens when you’re at your busiest.’
I’m left feeling really angry. Most of my students have worked ferociously hard, squeezing in paid work, paying high prices for accommodation, and with a bucket load of debt to look forward to. They deserve their degrees. They’ve earned them.
I talked to the lovely member of staff who helps students with language difficulties. He was much kinder. ‘Sometimes students are just not ready for study,’ he said. I remain appalled. How can you go through three years of a degree in creative writing and not know what a first draft is? Or understand where ‘help and advice’ ends and ‘writing it for you’ begins?
We will see what happens.