Andrew Burd on plagiarism revisited

Andrew BurdI recently shared some thoughts on plagiarism, which is an issue of significant concern to teachers, academics generally and journal editors. Now another concern has been raised and although this relates more to school and undergraduate writing, there is no doubt that without some critical and inspired thinking, this new phenomenon is going to erode the integrity and sanctity of academia in all its guises.

This phenomenon is the increasing number of “writer-for-hire” firms that openly advertise their services on the internet. Patsy Moy, one of the investigative journalists in our leading English language newspaper in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post, reported on this very worrying phenomenon on 8 January. An interesting aside here is that when you look at the link above it takes you to the article on the journal website and to access the full text you need to register. There is an alternative though and that is to do a Google search for “Norford Group” and there is the full text of the article at number two in the hits (as of 12 January 2011). According to Patsy Moy’s report the Norford Group “guarantees that its work is written by experts and is plagiarism- free.” Quotes for a 2500 word essay ranged from HK$2,860 to HK$4,650 (approximately GBP236-383). What is not pointed out is that if a student submitted such a paper as their own work that would be the most extreme form of plagiarism possible. A dismissible offence. It is cheating. It erodes the very principles on which academia and scholarship are based and is downright dishonest. That the example given was for a ‘Master’s degree law essay’ is somewhat ironic. Doing a non-schizophrenic knights move jump to another recent revelation in the New York Times it would appear that law schools themselves, at least in America, are not actually setting a very good example in honesty.

The debate intensifies regarding what to do. In the South China Morning Post on 12 January 2011, Kelly Yang, a graduate of Harvard Law School and the founder of an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong  suggests that small class sizes and a more intimate knowledge of individual students’ writing styles could reduce the risk of fraudulent assignment activity. Others take perhaps a more pessimistic view in the short term and call for a radical rethink in the way students and indeed academics are assessed; publish or perish in the age of stealth plagiarism is an inevitable recipe for dishonest practice. I read with interest Liz Wager’s eloquent discussion of the unfortunate “Wakefield et al” case. It is revealing to appreciate how much money can influence the truth.

I do not know exactly what the answer is but I can foresee a time when written assignments will no longer be part of student assessment and when research is presented online in real time and published journals and impact factors are regarded as rather quaint reminders of a rather endearing naivety of new millennium academia.

Andrew Burd is professor of plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His major clinical interests involve paediatric burns care and the role of plastic surgery in the palliation of advanced malignancy. Academic interests include pragmatic ethics related to the practice of medicine including research and publication.