Government Plagiarism

Lime came and ranted briefly about how some Korean lawmakers apparently plagiarised content from Korean travel communities after a investigatory trip to Vietnam. They got caught, of course, which is how it’s in the news.

What can I say? I’m not surprised. In Korea, plagiarism is widely acknowledged to be rampant. Foreigner after foreigner has told me stories of how articles, essays, magazine writing — not just student work but supposedly professional writing and even sometimes (?) scholarly work is directly plagiarized. Hell, Hyori isn’t the only pop star to be accused of ripping off foreign pop songs. (Though, with pop music, everything’s a ripoff of something else, so I’m less interested in that.)

Sure — not all professors plagiarize for publication — and, I should add, the large majority of my students don’t plagiarize — they struggle and sweat and study hard to write the things they hand in as homework. Not all magazine articles are plagiarized. I work with people who would never do that sort of thing, and who work hard at their jobs. But there is still a lot of plagiarism, and it is so widely tolerated, that I have trouble being surprised. I’ve already heard of several profs busted for plagiarism; I’ve heard of government reports like this several times; and students’ lack of awareness of the issue in general suggests that even if my fellow professors are being strict about it, the wider cultural atmosphere is more lax about it than it should be.

In any case, my students have reinforced my opinion that plagiarism is a major problem in education here; in my classes, when given a chance to discuss it, they’ve ranted angrily about it, as angrily as they have ranted about cheating on exams. The solution for exams is relatively easy: make it impossible to cheat and succeed. Demand students express individual opinions and their own examples of things. Force them to be a little creative, without setting the bar prohibitively high. (When I did that, I still had three students memorize by rote, and quote, huge swathes of wikipedia on their exam — but the responses didn’t address the questions I posed, since I requested personal examples, so their cheating resulted in failure anyway.) But with essays, it’s much harder to stamp out plagiarism. Students have so many ways around it, from using happycampus much so that I’m going to institute a new rule in my classes next semester.

This semester, students caught plagiarizing got F on the assignment, and in order to remain in the class had to do some task for me, such as translating (into Korean) a document for distribution at the beginning of next semester, or make a set of posters against plagiarism and post them around campus.

I think for next semester, I’m going to make that tougher, since even so, and after developing a reputation for being viciously anti-plagiarism, I still had about ten or twelve cases. (Some, admittedly, partly unwitting, but by students whom I’ve lectured about plagiarism before.)

I think for next semester, I’m going to have students decide on a (harsh) punishment for plagiarism, such as (a) revelationof the cheater’s identity to the class, (b) expulsion from the class, (c) notation on their permanent academic record, (d) copying-by-hand the article(s) or chapters plagiarised from, or something like that. This is both a preventative and an anodyne, in that it might actually terrify those who consider cheating, and for those who do it anyway, their fate will be decided by their peers. However, I’m going to reinforce how grave an academic offense cheating is, before their peers decide their fate.

All that said, the problem cannot be stamped out by punishing plagiarism harshly. It’s the general atmosphere of primary and secondary education that robs many students of their will and ability to express themselves. Lime recently said to me, “If students are in your class, listening and trying to understand, they’re already doing a good job, compared to their high school experience.” She talked about how some teachers in school teach not to the class, but to the top one or two kids in the room, and how the majority of students just shrug and sit there, attending but neither learning nor free to insist that they be taught. Rote-memorization can be a useful skill, but an education that valorizes it above all other things is bound to produce people who are used to looking outside for opinions and ideas, something I’m sure governments love, but which makes for rather poor citizens, let alone scholars, writers, engineers, business CEOs, filmmakers, musicians, doctors, and so on. While this can be unlearned, it’s slow and painful. It would be much better not to shove children in that direction in the first place.

6 thoughts on “Government Plagiarism

  1. It wasn’t such a big problem when I was teaching junior and senior high school students in Japan. Like their foreign teacher, my students were a bunch of godless consumers, and we tend to be a much more honest group of people than christians, communists and snake worshippers.

    There were a couple of minor cases of plagiarism on the high school newspaper, but it was easier to deal with it because it was an extra curricular activity, and there weren’t any grades on the line.

    The junior high school student essays were at times very moving. One student wrote of her dream to become a sommelier at Tokyo Disneyland. It’s amazing what those kids can do those electronic dictionaries…

  2. Huh, I’m surprised. I heard it was a major problem in Japan as well. Interesting, though I will note that plenty of South Koreans are godless consumers and it doesn’t seem to deter them from plagiarizing. (The fact I teach at a Catholic institution doesn’t mean my students are all adherents.)

    Some of my students’ essays are quite moving too. One older woman wrote angrily about necessary educational reforms; another student wrote of the dangers of enforced homogeneity here; still another wrote stirringly on how sexism is the underlying force that keeps abortions illegal and therefore underground, dangerous, and uninsured for women.

  3. I stacked the deck somewhat when I said that the junior high school students didn’t plagiarize any of their essays. They didn’t know enough English to plagiarize their paragraphs from the internet. However, I was always surprised by how few of them were looking over their friends shoulders when composing paragraphs. In classes with forty kids I’d maybe have four cases (tops) of copied essays.

    The big problem with the high school students was apathy, at least in the final year. Exams, school clubs, and cram schools would eat into their time for homework and at times it was obvious they couldn’t be bothered to do the work assigned.

  4. Apathy’s a big problem in any system where rote learning is pushed on people for a decade or more, but it’s worse and more ubiquitous in schools with lower standards.

    And yeah, exams, onerous but seemingly-inescapable club memberships, and hakwons are the reason kids here have no time for homework, let alone personal reflection. In University, the picture changes only slightly — on top of club memberships, there’s department outings and the demands of social life.

    But I think the real reason for apathy is that so many people are studying things they’re not truly interested in. Since almost everyone who can afford it goes to Uni here, you get lots of people who don’t like to study in Uni; and there’s less freedom in class choice, and less of a phenomenon of flunking out (especially now that the college-aged population is declining and everyone’s competing to get or keep students). So standards go lax and you have too many apathetic students.

    One of the nice things about my teaching experience, though, is seeing some people “get” it, get shocked by the idea of participating in class, and then seizing upon it. I had a student thank me for that, crying, on the steps of the office building the other day, and I knew her just well enough to know it was sincere. She and her friends, they seem to have “gotten” it about education and learning.

  5. A lot of our students had given enough thought as to why they were studying English. Junior high really didn’t lay down any significant foundations.

    It was mostly about convincing the students that English could be fun and foreigners weren’t threatening. I’d grade paragraphs, but I was more of a cheerleader than an instructor.

    During the first year of high school they tended to be enthusiatic, but some of them were ground down somewhat by the demands of an English intensive program for two years.

    That was the nice thing about JET though, as I was a cultural ambassador first and an educator second. I’d help out the teacher in the classroom, but playing pickup basketball games with students during during the weekend was as much a part of my job as conjugating verbs in class during the weekday.

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