Thanks to those who commented below, apologies for a belated response. And thanks also to Jack McGowan, who has posted his comments on his own blog, and to Victoria Carolan, also one of PhD students, who has made very useful suggestions in person.
One point raised by Alan, below, and by Victoria, was the confrontational tone I’ve adopted. Not just confrontational, in fact, but divisive – most of the time I try my best to adopt a non-hierarchical voice, and I’ve spent a lot of words elsewhere in the Historical Writing coursepack suggesting that all members of the department – undergraduates, postgraduates, research students, academics, administrators – are part of a historical community to which we all contribute. So I can only blame the extraordinary anger that builds up inside me when I have to deal with plagiarism for making me adopt the tone I did.
I still feel that anger, of course. And I am not sure that this is a problem that is best dealt with by tolerance. Yes, plagiarism can occur inadvertently – and probably all of us who write historically have had cause at some point to worry about how we’ve expressed something. Anyone who teaches will have encountered students whose plagiarism is accidental. But my personal feeling – and since I am identifiable I must emphasise that it is solely personal – is that this allows an easy escape route for many students who plagiarised deliberately. ‘I didn’t mean to do it’ or ‘I didn’t know what I was doing’ gets you one free pass. And it shouldn’t. For me, this is a bit like the issue of drug taking in sport: the athlete has responsibility for everything that goes into their body, whether they’re a chemist or not. Just because they didn’t know that coach’s funny syringe contained more than vitamins doesn’t absolve them. If you plagiarise at all, for whatever reason, you get 0 for that piece of work. If you get caught twice, you’re out of the department. But, probably fortunately, I don’t get to make those calls.
But I think that – thought I hate to use this word – a piece of writing that encouraged more ’empathy’ might be less aggressive and more effective. As has been suggested, ‘how would you feel if you opened your lecturer’s best-selling book and discovered that they had copied from your third year dissertation?’ is perhaps a more respectful approach, and more thought provoking.
My fear about discussing established historians who have ‘got away with it’ is that there’s a risk of blurring the line. But I take the idea that this might be a useful means of engagement. I have to say that they have not necessarily ‘got away with it’ just because they’ve kept their posts or are still getting contracts. In a field as gossipy as academia, once you’ve been tarred with that brush it won’t go away. I ‘m sure we can all think of examples where new graduate students are warned about letting Professor X see their work without having hedged it round with statements to ensure they get credited. I don’t think there’s space on this course for that sort of in-depth discussion – but I would _really_ like to develop a similar module to this for subsequent study years about public history, its demands, successes and failures, where such material would be appropriate and useful.
Points about software (although I can’t really see anyone taking that as a challenge), generic questions (urgh – laziness on the part of the instructor), coyness and so on all accepted and will be worked into the re-write.