Although the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word plagiarism as “the action or practice of taking someone else’s work or idea and passing it off as one’s own,” South African author Mokokoma Mokhonoana defines it rather as “the fear of a blank page.” The second definition is one that resounds with students around the globe who are under constant pressure to perform well at tertiary institutions.

In an article written last year by Prega Govender in Times Live entitled “Universities battle a rising tide of cheating,” Govender says that more than 1400 students at major tertiary institutions in South Africa were found guilty of academic dishonesty in 2014. Prof. Molly Brown of the Department of English at the University of Pretoria says that “plagiarism is an enormous problem at UP.” With so many students resorting to literary theft despite the harsh consequences, one has to wonder what drives students to such measures.

Danelle Kamffer, a student judicial officer at the University of Potchefstroom, said students caught cheating often complain of having enrolled for too many modules and say that they have too little time to prepare for exams or assignments. Another big factor is the pressure placed on students to succeed. A CNN report written in 2002 showed that some students are willing to sacrifice their integrity in order to achieve good grades. Prof. Brown believes that many students plagiarise because they do not have confidence in their own choices. It is important that students realise the value of producing creative ideas that result from their own hard work. Although the internet has made it easier for students to plagiarise, it has also made it easier to detect plagiarism through software such as Turnitin. Students face getting zero for the assignment, having the offending article placed in a departmental plagiarism register, and even academic exclusion if found guilty of blatant plagiarism. Prof. Brown adds, however, that “this kind of penalty is never imposed for plagiarism which could conceivably be seen by a reasonable person to have been accidental.”

Prof. Adele Thomas, a professor of industrial psychology and people management at the University of Johannesburg, sounded passionate about this subject when being interviewed on Talk Radio 702 on 19 February. She says plagiarism is a “cancer” growing in our institutions, but her focus was more on plagiarism committed by academics themselves rather than their students. She said that there is no question that academics have come under huge pressure by institutions to publish articles, as a large source of income for many universities is the R120 000 incentive paid out by the Department of Higher Education and Training for each paper published. The sad result of this is that there is a performance measure in terms of volume of output and not quality. While in the past there was not enough publishing done by academics, there is now an overflow of published papers that are not papers of original content and integrity, said Prof. Thomas. Co-written by Prof. Gideon de Bruin, Prof. Thomas’ editorial “UJ professors on plagiarism: the millions we spend on stolen ideas” from 17 February 2015 shows that, by using Turnitin, it was found that 68% of journal articles recently published in the South African Journal of Science showed enough evidence to qualify as plagiarised. For clarity, Prof. Thomas pointed out that students working towards their PhD were expected to produce work with original input, but for master’s students it is acceptable to refer back to previous publications. She also explained that self-plagiarism is using work previously written by you and presenting it as new thoughts. This is considered a very serious form of plagiarism. “Always reference back,” added Prof. Thomas.

Plagiarism is certainly not a new phenomenon that came about with the advent of the internet, although the “cut and paste” aspect has certainly helped make the problem worse. An academic committee at Boston University found that over half of Martin Luther King’s academic works were plagiarised while he was working towards his PhD, and his “I have a dream” speech was plagiarised from a sermon by Archibald Carey, a popular preacher in the 1950s. Another famous plagiarist was the poet T.S. Eliot. Nowadays academic scholars attack his legacy for unoriginality, including respected poetry critic F.W. Bateson who wrote an essay entitled “T.S. Eliot: The Poetry of Pseudo Learning”.

Plagiarism is not the only form of academic fraud taking place. Former Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan was exposed for lying about his academic qualifications. It was pointed out that academic qualifications are not among constitutional requirements to qualify for a seat in parliament, but does this excuse his blatant lie? His record of contribution and sacrifice certainly sparked robust debate after this revelation, especially when Prof. Jonathan Janssen, the vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State, suggested that a South African university do the right thing and award Jordan with an honorary doctorate. The SABC suffered not one but two similar scandals after Hlaudi Motsoeneng, COO at the SABC, admitted to the Public Protector that he lied about having a matric qualification and Ellen Zandile Tshabalala, now former chairperson of the SABC, admitted that she had not actually been awarded the BCom degree and postgraduate diploma in labour relations that she claimed to have had. Tshabalala remained defiant when confronted with this, stating “I have done nothing wrong.”

In 2012 the University of Johannesburg had to deal with 613 students who produced fake sick notes in order to avoid writing exams.

Why take the chance of your credibility always being questioned? Remember, your original thoughts or ideas might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but original ideas will always contribute to any healthy debate and therefore will always have value.


Image: Johann van Tonder

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