It’s plagiarism Jim, but not as we know it. (Part 1: Prologue)

Recently I attended a conference on academic integrity. Full of academics and university managers all concerned about the rising tide of plagiarism, cheating and the exponential growth of (perfectly legal) services and products such as ‘essay mills’.

As is customary at such gatherings, there was a keynote presentation from an expert in such matters. In this case it was a senior academic and university leader talking about the way their university had approached the ‘problem’. The presentation, accompanied by the inevitable Powerpoint slides of charts and bullet points, was going well and had my full attention until the first photographic image appeared. It was a stunning image of an iceberg, seen both above and below the water line, used to illustrate the point that what we see and catch in terms of plagiarism, cheating, collusion etc. is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

I immediately recognised the image, and if you Google ‘iceberg’ and select ‘images’ you’ll see it amongst the first set of images. It’s also – because it’s a great image – promiscuously plagiarised on dozens of websites and blogs. I recognised it, because I’ve also ‘stolen’ it for a satiric poster…but that’s another story.

But here we had a patently plagiarised image, with no acknowledgment as to its source, being used to illustrate a presentation on tackling and preventing plagiarism, given by experts in the field.

A wee bit ironic.

But the thing is: I’m sure we’ve all done it at some point. Let’s ‘spice up’ our otherwise visually boring Powerpoint presentations with some nice ‘visuals’. Isn’t that what we’re encouraged to do? And doesn’t something like Google images or Flickr make it so easy?

But is it so hard (and ignoring, for the moment, issues of copyright) to acknowledge one’s sources? Perhaps, when it comes to plagiarism, we should try just a bit harder to practise what we preach when we present our work – whether to students or colleagues.

(Coming soon – Part 2: Into the Grey Zone)