Valerie Grant: Creative theft has found its way up to the highest level

1 comment
Witi Ihimaera. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Witi Ihimaera. Photo / Brett Phibbs

It is outrageous that a professor of English has been awarded one of the top prizes in New Zealand for creative art, after there has already been full exposure of the extent to which he has plagiarised others' work.

The fact that he is a professor of English makes it all the more reprehensible. He, more than anyone, should be aware how difficult it is to create a beautiful sentence. He should know from experience how much time and effort goes into doing so.

And isn't the prize for "creative" work? How can he be awarded such a prize when the work is clearly the result of someone else's creativity?

Apparently, he has apologised. He has also said he won't allow it to happen again. But this is not the first time it has happened. In an earlier incident he copied material from another academic's work without attribution.

He made "a graceful apology" then, too (Listener, November 21-27, 2009, p6), but did not change his behaviour.

The extent of Professor Witi Ihimaera's plagiarism in this instance was detected by a reviewer from the United States, a person with a doctorate in comparative literature from Cornell University. So this news will be reported throughout the literary world.

What will it do for our international reputation in the arts?

It will call into question not only the authenticity of this particular award, but all the others made by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand.

The ramifications of this ill-judged award go on and on. What does it imply for oncourse assessment in our national examination system? A large proportion of the mark in NCEA is awarded for course work - work which students do at home, in their own time. What is to stop any student from now on simply copying the most attractive looking material from the internet and pasting it into their essays?

According to Professor Ihimaera, you can justify the use of such cheating if you like the words enough. "I fell in love with their language and phrasing, and I did not feel that I could express their descriptions better" (Listener, November 14-20, 2009, p17).

Thus, if you model yourself on Professor Ihimaera, all you have to do to succeed is to find and copy interesting material from other people's work.

For more than three decades, I was a lecturer at the University of Auckland. During that time there was a steady rise in plagiarism among students. Some attributed this, at least in part, to the rise in access to the internet and consequent ease of finding material.

The university has - or had (!) - strict rules on plagiarism. In the University of Auckland Guidelines, Conduct of Coursework, the message is written in commendably blunt language: "If someone else's work - from whatever source - is portrayed by a student as being their own work, without proper attribution, then it is cheating."

Students who were caught deliberately plagiarising material were reported to the university's disciplinary committee, and, according to the circumstances, given zero for the piece of work in which the plagiarism had occurred, or in the worst cases, failed the paper. For repeat cases, students could be fined or excluded from the university.

These days the problems go on into the higher degrees, with plagiarism occurring even in Masters theses. One of the most frequent sources of such plagiarism is from text books.

But, like poets and novelists, text book writers have usually spent many hours struggling to produce clear, unambiguous sentences, so students can understand complex concepts. Of course they're beautiful sentences, but this is absolutely no excuse for people to steal them and claim them as their own bright vision.

Usually, plagiarism is not hard to detect. Often a student who is not a particularly good writer will struggle with a few clumsy sentences, and then suddenly, in the middle of a badly-structured paragraph, there come a couple of very elegant sentences.

But disciplinary committees will not take a change in style as evidence of plagiarism; the lecturer has to be able to say exactly where the material came from. Thus, university lecturers are finding more and more of their time is taken up trying to track down such cheating.

This is such a thankless task that I have known instances where the marker refused to recognise the change in style, simply in order not to have to spend hours doing the investigations needed to pin it down.

This is all too understandable. Lecturers would much prefer to be doing some truly creative work of their own, adding to the university's international reputation with genuine work and publications.

As it is, it seems the cheats win - right up to and including the highest level. This is a dark day indeed in the history of NZ culture.

* Valerie Grant, PhD, is honorary senior lecturer at the Psychological Medicine faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

Your views

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 26 Oct 2014 02:37:11 Processing Time: 510ms