Wednesday, October 2, 2019

An Open Letter to the Students of University College London

Image by RyanMinkoff - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74889821

I would like to take this opportunity to address the students of University College London (UCL) – especially those newly enrolled in classes and courses. Congratulations! You’re now members of the student body of an institution that bills itself as ‘London's Global University’.

I’m sure you’ve had an exciting time since coming to University. So much to see and do – and all in the heart of London too! I’m sure there have been freshers events, clubs & societies days, tours of the campus, and all that barely-managed mayhem of beginning an exciting and potentially life-changing period of your life. In amongst all this excitement, I am sure there have been orientation events that have concentrated on class expectations and the basics of how the assessment systems work. You will, I can guarantee it, have been introduced to the world of Turnitin – the portal through which your essays and assignments will be submitted for grading by your lecturers. You will also be aware that part of the function of Turnitin is to automatically scan your work for evidence of plagiarism. Plagiarism is a filthy habit and must be suppressed at all costs!

Thankfully, your university has provided a handy web page for your education and reference [here]. I’m sure you’re already familiar with it, but allow me to provide a summary – it gives a definition of what plagiarism is, it notes that you can even unintentionally plagiarise yourself! (sounds painful). In the final section ‘What you can and can't do at UCL’ it helpfully lays out some basic ground rules. These include cutting & pasting text from other sources, recycling essays (including your own), employing ghostwriters, or even to go so far as to “produce a piece of work based on someone else's ideas without citing them”. The webpage makes it clear that a range of penalties await the unwary or unscrupulous student: “ranging from failure of classes to expulsion from academic institutions.”

There you have it! Be warned! These are the rules you must live by in your academic career – attempt to contravene them at your peril! While them may, at first, seem difficult and onerous, you can rest easy in the knowledge that everyone is on the same, level playing field! Everyone’s singing off the same anti-plagiarism hymn sheet! Of course they are! It really wouldn’t make sense to subject one group to these high and lofty principles and at the same time allow another group a complete pass on them.

UCL wouldn’t do that to you! You’re fine!

But …

… well …

… here’s the thing …

What if your academic superiors were actually held to a different standard? Perhaps they’re held to a higher standard? It would make sense, wouldn’t it? They’re professors and eminent folks with PhDs – you’re just a student starting out, but they’re professional academics. It would stand to reason that they’re being held to a higher, loftier, more noble standard than you.

But …

… well …

… here’s the thing …

What if they weren’t?
What if they were actually being held to a much lower standard than is expected of their students?
How would you feel about that?
Probably a bit peeved, right?
But, of course, that’s not the case, so no need to worry! Right?

But …

… well …

… here’s the thing …

Let me tell you a very short story, or at least a story as short as I can make it. Some of my work was used in a paper by some of your lecturers. They were as follows: Andrew Bevan, Sue Colledge, Dorian Fuller, Stephen Shennan, and Chris Stevens, all from UCL. There was one further co-author on that paper - Ralph Fyfe who teaches at Plymouth University. It turns out that although the work I (and others) did was instrumental to their paper, they felt that they didn’t need to give any real credit for it. If you wanted to find out who’d provided background data you’d have had to have downloaded a .zip file of additional material, navigate into one of many sub-folders and there discovered a .md file that gave a brief list of the authors and works they’d built their research on. In my case it was even more galling as they gotten both my name and the name of my work wrong. As Bevan couldn’t be made to understand that he’d done anything wrong, I felt that I had no recourse open to me other than to submit a complaint to your university. Surely UCL would do the right thing! They’d see how their lecturers hadn’t played fair, issue an apology, give the authors a rap on the knuckles and tell them not to be so silly in future. In my reading around plagiarism and how to make an official complaint, I encountered the webpage mentioned above. Its contents gave me great hope that I would be taken seriously and the transgressors would be dealt with appropriately. You can read the detail of what actually happened in my post ‘Three Billboards Outside University College London: A case of approved plagiarism by Prof Andrew Bevan et al.’, though the title does kinda give the ending away (sorry). After waiting months to even get a response beyond an acknowledgment of my original email, the enquiry found that as there had been no intent to deceive, there was no plagiarism and hiding away all reference to my work where it would struggle to be seen was perfectly acceptable.

Imagine if you were up in front of an academic review board, or being on the receiving end of some sharp words from an tenured supervisor for something picked up by the Turnitin system. How would you feel knowing that the people sitting in judgment on you were not going to be held to the same standard? Even if you were scrupulous in every essay, project, report, and thesis you ever did and there was never even the slightest hint that you might have plagiarised the work of another you could still be a victim of your own professors. So long as they didn’t mean it, they’re free to take your work and pass it off as their own. And there’s nothing you can do about it!

So … anyway … welcome to UCL! I’m sure you’ll have a great time and not be plagiarised by your own lecturers! It’ll be fine!

Robert M Chapple

Note
Lest anyone think that this is directed at UCL alone, allow me to add that the separate investigation carried out by Plymouth University into the culpability of Ralph Fyfe found exactly the same thing.

I’ve not carried out a thorough survey, but I’d be surprised to learn that UCL and Plymouth University were the outliers here. I suspect that many more universities have rules of conduct for their staff that are markedly different from those they apply to their own students in terms of plagiarism. Perhaps it is time that some of these universities moved proactively to balance the situation and ensure that the same rules apply to all?

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