The style was different, the text seemed to flow better, the language was more complicated and the sentences more carefully crafted.
I typed a few lines into Google and quickly found the original open access article. The text of was identical. This was the first time I had encountered plagiarism.
The quality of the students’ work varied greatly and when someone didn’t make the grade I spent hours trying to tease out whether the problem was laziness, not understanding the task, or inability. I went back through undergraduate records and previous grades for other signs that they may be struggling. Usually it came down to lack of effort but this was more serious than laziness.
I printed out the original article and took this and the student’s assignment to the consultant in charge of the undergraduate placement.
Could there be an explanation? Did they know what they were doing? Was English their first language? If not, was it harder for them to find a way of putting the information into their own words? Someone else always seems to have the perfect way of explaining something in the scientific literature and it can be tricky to find a different way to communicate the same facts. And to what extent do you need to change something for it to be acceptable and not to be considered plagiarism?
I picked a time when I could speak to the student alone. When I showed her the source article, she started crying and said she always did it; no one had ever told her it was wrong. 'Well,' I said, 'I’m telling you now.' She didn’t have any idea that this constituted plagiarism or that she had been doing something wrong.
I wondered if she was the only one. I wanted to do a study to explore medical undergraduates’ perceptions of plagiarism. But the medical school was less than enthusiastic about the idea. They felt that it might make the university look bad.
I don’t remember being taught anything about publication ethics as an undergraduate. At the time I felt like a factory-processed medical student, known by my number rather than my name, with my exam grades posted on a notice board and little feedback on my written work.
Yet with such great competition for posts, everyone is being pushed to obtain publications earlier and earlier in their careers and learning how to write well and ethically is important.
With respected consultants attending GMC hearings for similar offences, I wonder if we should have taken things further. Perhaps the recent high profile cases, both in medicine and other fields, will raise awareness and act as a deterrent?
Ignorance cannot be used as an excuse. Irrespective of the perpetrator’s intent, using stolen words will always remain a punishable crime.
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