A news report on the radio this morning discussed if originality was possible any more now that the internet made it so easy to discover things. Behind the story was the brute fact that a lot of university students cheat. Mostly they do it by copying from articles posted on the internet and don't give a proper citation. They make the work appear their own when it's not. And it isn't just students who do it: celebrity academics like Raj Persaud, the media psychiatrist, are being investigated for alleged plagiarism.
When I teach research methods to my students I always warn them of the dire consequences of plagiarising or stealing others' work. It's dishonest and it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, both for the one that does it, especially if found out, and the one to whom it is done. I was shocked when I discovered that someone had once clearly plagiarised my work: the words were virtually identical. What was worse was that it was done to me by someone I thought a friend. Nor was I able to face him with it. It's insidious because you question who you can trust.
Plagiarism isn't easy to deal with from the students' perspective. Their fear is that they won't be taken for "original" if every other word in their assignments is referenced by some citation to another worthy article or book. They feel as though they are merely regurgitating others' thoughts without any contribution of their.
I try to calm them by contrasting the terms "search" and "research". I suggest the reason that we adopt the latter term instead of "search" is not that there is nothing original to say but that good research constantly builds on others' work and we must acknowledge that. Robert Merton conceived of it as "standing on the shoulders of giants", and he is correct. Nevertheless, the way we put together ideas, how we select them, how we critique them and so on means that although we rely on others' work, our intellectual ancestors don't dictate to us how that work will be interpreted. Moreover, it is through the work and eyes of others that we can have original insights. This always puts me in mind of James Watson's Double Helix, his story of how he and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA. They couldn't have done it without the research of Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, who undertook the detailed x-ray crystallogrophy. And if the conditions of the Nobel Prize hadn't excluded posthumous awards, Franklin would have joined the other three at the award ceremony. The discovery of the double helix was a truly collaborative enterprise, a true piece of research, not something that wafted out of the ether. It usually takes dramatic stories like this to convince students that research can be original.
Having said all this, I'm facing a crazy deadline which involves writing a paper that is based largely on histories of law firms. (So how original can my work be then?) I'm interested in the tension between professionalism and partnership. While I can make sense of the ideals of professionalism within partner-based organizations where partners actually know each other (and I include barristers' chambers within this definition), it becomes very difficult when one analyses the large law firms such as Clifford Chance, Baker & McKenzie, or Skadden Arps. With one's partners strewn across the globe, how possible is it to create a professional community? Or, perhaps which is worse, how long is it before the professionals abdicate responsibility to a bureaucratic caste who initially operate in a support mode but eventually come to take over? It's happened in the universities and it's already happening in some of the larger professional service firms. I think professionalism needs help.