In Search of a Code

In a recent meeting I had with some fellow students and the MBA Programs Director to discuss the our Code of Academic Conduct that had come under media scrutiny due to some unfortunate pranks by some of the students, one Canadian student related (with some relish, I might add) an anecdote about an international student (a member of her team) who had copied and pasted a portion of text from Wikipedia in contribution to a team project report. When questioned, the international student admitted with some puzzlement that it was indeed from Wikipedia, which, given its open-source position, he did not realize needed to be properly referenced in the document. This anecdote sparked off the subsequent discussion which quickly degenerated into a trading of similar stories of by the other (Canadian) students present, which, while carefully circumventing the actual use of the term “international student” quite clearly implied in the traded stories that these instances of ignorance or malfeasance most likely originate among them. Lax academic standards in their home countries, pressures to produce work of idiomatically and structurally acceptable quality for academic work in a foreign language (English), or simple downright laziness to pull one’s weight on a team project, were all cited as possible reasons for this rash of substandard work.

Yet, the whole stream of stories emerging from the first Wikipedia one seemed to miss the key issue which is that of ignorance: ignorance about the specific protocols of scholarship in a specific discipline and in a specific language. Some students (international or local) have until now, not been instructed on the specific rituals of bibliographic citation that are agreed upon by the scholarly community of the Western Academy. I choose my words advisedly here. There is a mistaken notion among some semi-educated students here that until The MLA Handbook, or The Chicago Manual of Style, the action of willfully passing off as one’s own, or borrowing without acknowledgment, the work of others (i.e plagiarism) did not exist. I find it hard to believe that for any sustained body of continued scholarship to exist, the theft of another’s intellectual capital must have been regulated in some way—it is after all the “capital” of the scholarship industry.[1] The protocols simply change over time, and we learn new protocols.

What constitutes plagiarism, and how to cite within the correct protocols for a given academy is to be taught by those who know (i.e. teachers, fellow students and colleagues) for the betterment of knowledge usage and creation among all of its participants. Therefore, the issue at hand seems to get those of us unaware of the protocols and citation requirements, up to speed. This is no major task: as a student Mentor, it took me perhaps a couple of 1-hour sessions to bring my mentees up to speed on the specific requirements of academic writing in the Canadian university. I am happy to say that they are both genuinely conscientious students, and once they learned the “rules of the game,” they played admirably well within them, roundly trouncing their colleagues over the bell-curve with straight As on their subsequent essays. This training (no different from Excel modeling sessions) is a practical and necessary skill for all students, but most especially to those most in need of the skill. However, the facility in use of Excel does not imply some sort of moral superiority of those who happen to have acquired it over those who have not acquired it yet. The same is true of these protocols of bibliographic citation.

Another student was histrionically appalled that his team mate (another international student) had suggested in a team meeting that Blackberry phones could benefit from having email as an added feature. The appalled student concluded that such an ignorant comment deserved having the offender being rusticated from the program. It is quite likely that the offending team-mate probably assumed that Blackberry was simply another branded phone. Asia’s mobile technology has outpaced that of North America literally by generations, so it is quite possible that someone used to advanced mobile technology arriving from that part of the world may be ignorant of the primitive intermediate steps that were emerging though the supposedly “cutting edge” technology from Blackberry. If anything, the ignorance could arguably be that of the accuser, rather than the accused. Would the accuser then apply such stringent to himself and rusticate himself from the program?

This is a school after all, and it would be instructive to remember that famous reminder that we are given when we joined the program that this is a safe learning environment in which we can make (and learn from) our mistakes in practicing the skills required of our professions—in contrast to a working world where such errors may come with serious consequences. Let us teach our students and one another by all means, but that gloating by those who learned these protocols over those who did not as yet, is as distasteful as a person with eye-sight mocking a blind person who obliviously walked into an obstacle. Having lived outside the familiar space of Canada for the past 15 years, I know only too well of how blind I can be of serious breaches in protocol in lands that are new and foreign to me. We can all be inadvertently blind in that foreign space; we can make mistakes out of ignorance (even where they may have potentially serious consequences), but through the goodwill and guidance of our local colleagues, we can learn and adapt. I would like to hope that the respect for the dignity each student, the comradely support, and the desire to collectively grow as a school community would be a defining attribute of our particular institution, exemplified in all of its students. That spirit of mutual growth, and positive cooperation should probably be the defining spirit of a code of academic conduct here, rather than one which merely sets out a prescriptive list of Dos and Don’ts. I, for one would be proud to belong to such an institution, and count myself indeed fortunate that I can call my fellow students also my colleagues.

Note: The subsequent report that the Programs Director did compile for the Dean was, to her credit, scrupulously attentive to the needs and limitations of all students. This is a laudable step in the right direction, and one hopes the first of many in quest of a better code.

Works Cited:

Gonzalez-Crussi, F. A Short History of Medicine. New York: Modern Library, 2007.

[1] I recently discovered the etymological roots of torcular Herophili (a clump of nerves in the brain), which I had mechanically memorized in the days of my abortive medical studies: apparently, it translates from Latin as “The Herophilus Press” named after its discoverer, Herophilus (c. 335 – c. 280 B.C.), and which have been scrupulously attributed through over 2300 years of scholarship. This is the real and immortal reward of original discovery or creation in scholarship that the taboo of plagiarism so strongly proscribes against (and rightly so). (Medicine, 6)

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