Handwritten manuscripts to curb plagiarism: Panacea or pandemic?

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, September 14 2013, 11:55 AM

In order to prevent a resurgence of plagiarism or academic cheating at Sam Ratulangi University (USR) in Manado, North Sulawesi, the university’s Rector, Donald Rumokoy, recently proposed a rather appalling strategy: all academic assignments must be handwritten (Kompas, Aug. 31).

Pointing out the fact that some 50 percent of students’ academic work was plagiarized, he seemed to be laying blame on high-tech devices as the main impetus for students to commit plagiarism.

The case of academic dishonesty at USR is only the tip of the iceberg of numerous cases of undetected cheating that plague academia in the country. Quite surprisingly, although assorted efforts have been taken to avoid plagiarism, intellectual dishonesty remains rampant and continues to persist among students, teachers and even some scholars.

While previous efforts have failed to deter academics from academic cheating, it is reasonable to cast doubt over whether the proposed strategy of handwritten manuscripts will help avoid plagiarism and whether this strategy will be effective in minimizing unethical behavior among academics.

One can argue, for example, that ideas and textual patterns of writing belonging to a certain author can be taken verbatim and “pasted” through handwriting without acknowledgment by students and scholars. Thus, intellectual infringements can be committed without necessarily involving access to typewriters or computers.

It is clear then that the requirement for handwritten academic manuscripts offers no panacea for avoiding plagiarism, but instead shows a pandemic symptom in the process of aiding students’ literacy development.

In the context of the technological revolution such as computer-assisted language learning (CALL), which has proven to be a tremendous aid for facilitating students’ literacy development, clinging to a traditional mode of writing (i.e. handwriting) reflects a gross setback and curtails students’ literacy creativity as far as writing pedagogy is concerned.

First, we should not lose sight of the fact that literacy in the cyber era means more than just simply putting a string of words and ideas (using pens or pencils) on paper to create text. That is, text realization doesn’t always take shape from linguistic elements only. Other semiotic resources, such as symbols, emoticons and images, shape and reshape themselves to become meaningful texts, leading to the concept of “multimodality” and “multi-literacy” in the field of literacy.

Second, the advancement of technological devices does not always carry negative consequences for writing pedagogy. Through their engagement with cyberspace, students can learn how both linguistic and other semiotic resources mingle with and jostle one another to create meaningful texts. They can create, recreate and even recycle their own texts in the light of the available texts they have read on the web. Thus, cyberspace can function as a useful tool for learning to write.

Finally, since the advent of communication technology like the Internet, the notion of authorship has become rather fuzzy. People can easily reproduce and access texts by assembling available excerpts from a great variety of sources.

This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to trace who the original creator of a given text is. It is this last point that makes the concept of plagiarism equally fuzzy and, therefore, not easy to discern upon a superficial inspection.

However, if by a certain academic standard, a student is found committing plagiarism, the issue is not the proscription of writing academic work with technological devices. It is not the devices that are at fault but those who use them.

Thus, what should be the main cause of concern has nothing to do with the medium of technology per se, but with how we can inculcate our students with the ideas of academic honesty and integrity. Scott A Wowra’s (2007) “moral identity hypothesis” helps illuminate the maintenance of moral integrity among students.

The hypothesis proposes that a student with a central, or core, moral identity is highly unlikely to engage in antisocial or unethical behavior such as academic cheating, fraud, stealing, lying or infidelity. In contrast, those students with a peripheral moral identity are more likely to do so.

It may be the case that this hypothesis fails to predict what it hypothesizes. The prevalent plagiarism committed by students, teachers, and scholars alike in the country seems to belie the above hypothesis.

This is because the social pressure on students and teachers’ academic performance supersedes moral integrity, thus making them succumb to academic wrongdoing so as to gain a good impression (in the eyes of society), leading others to believe that they excel academically, that they do their jobs well and that they are competent in their fields of expertise.

As this pressure often makes them socially anxious, given a fear of failing exams and not being promoted to higher positions, they tend to sacrifice their moral integrity. This is called by Wowra the “social anxiety hypothesis” – a contested hypothesis to his other one as laid out above.

From this account, one can conclude that the rampant academic dishonesty in the country’s halls of academe seems to mirror the approximation of the social anxiety hypothesis more than the moral identity hypothesis.

The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University. He is also chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching