19 March 2009

On customised plagiarism and ghosting

This is the story of organised plagiarism, which is a not only a substantial business for providers, but also a gamble for clients and a big problem for colleges and universities.

See http://www.jiscpas.ac.uk/wp/index.php and of course follow up here. I must declare an interest in that I am currently working for the outfit which runs this course, but that aside, they are clearly at the forefront of this field. (Can you be at the forefront of a field?...)

About fifteen years ago, I gave (gave? No, frankly I didn't, because she did pay me, despite my protestations, an honorarium for my efforts. I can only plead that my contribution did not depend on her payment...) I "gave" quite substantial support to a friend undertaking a master's degree. It did amount to drafting some passages for her course work and dissertation, some of which she may well have used verbatim.

It so happens that her subject area was close to, but not the same as, mine. She was a social work practitioner, highly committed, highly skilled and highly experienced. She was also off work because of injuries incurred in the line of duty, so she decided to use the opportunity to get a master's. This information may or may not be relevant; have you noticed that is the way things are in the real world? It's only in academe that stuff is pre-selected for its relevance...

She had a big problem with organising her ideas into a coherent essay. She could do reports until they came out of her ears. The evidence for her arguments stood in foot-high piles on her spare-bedroom floor (in those days, my child, it was all printed on paper).

But she did not know how to play the academic game at this level. (Background; in those days the standard social work qualification was a Certificate of Qualification in Social Work at HE level 2/NQF 5 a.k.a equivalent to second-year undergraduate study. How she got admission to a Master's programme on the basis of that qualification, I do not know.)

I helped her to do that. I helped her very directly. Not only did I advise her, in the later stages I cut and pasted her points and re-assembled them and directed her to write a paragraph to argue such and such, and even got her to dictate that paragraph to me, while I typed it into the computer.

... you get the picture?

There was no "plagiarism" here, but was there "ghost-writing"? Where is the boundary of legitimacy?

(Incidentally, I took a keen interest in the feedback she got. I was appalled by its partisan nature, but that is another story...)

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