I have got a story to tell. Many years ago during my second year of university one of the units I was studying was a subject called Excitable Cells and Endocrine Systems. It was a deeply fascinating and engaging subject. The unit basically dealt with intricacies and different functionalities of the many individual and functional systems of the human body. It also touched on the relationship between those systems and the different chemicals found in the human body. Excitable Cells and Endocrine Systems helped foster an appreciation in me of the amazing integrated functioning of the human body. Despite all these fascinating aspects that is not why this particular unit left an indelible mark on my mind. The reason I remember it so much even after all these years is because this was the first and only time in my life I got pulled up on plagiarism charges. And yes I was very much guilty of the intellectual crime I stood accused of.
Having left it till the very last minute to research, let alone write up my major assignment for that unit I took the easy route and basically googled my assignment. Even worse still I then went out on to just copy and paste what I had googled. I made no effort to alter it in any way. I reasoned that because I was copying and pasting from different sources I was doing ‘research’. I was lying to myself. What I was doing was plagiarism. I was stealing other people’s intellectual property and unashamedly presenting it as my own. In case you live under a rock and are not aware this is unacceptable in both academic circles in most endeavours that entail intellectual property. If you are going to use someone’s intellectual property at the very least you have to credit your source. I didn’t do that either.
Besides my outright laziness and procrastination one of the other reasons I had no qualms was because of the educational system and learning culture I was raised in. High school education in Zimbabwe, long regarded as one of the ‘best’ systems in Africa was examination/test focused. To my knowledge that is still the case even today. Everything you did and all that you learned was with a singular focus in mind, excelling in your final exams. It was as simple as that. Homework, coursework, sport and other extracurricular activities counting for nothing when it came to assessing your development as a student. The only measure of how “educated’ you were was centred on testing your academic knowledge. Any other skills that did not lie in academia were irrelevant to that assessment.
As such like most students I learned to cram what I was taught. That was a guaranteed way of excelling during exams. There was no focus on independent cognitive development and my mental faculties were hardly stimulated. Even with subjects like English Literature you got higher marks for quoting a Shakespeare soliloquy verbatim than for actually displaying any understanding of what the premise of the play was. Luckily I was an avid reader of all kinds of books outside of school so my minder often got a chance to wander outside of the confines of the classroom. But even then I often got chided for wasting valuable study reading on things I wouldn’t be tested on during exams. Anyway suffice to say I quickly figured out how to be a straight A student. By replicating what I was taught word for word on the exam pad. This is what I was taught was ‘intelligence’ and academic excellence. It is no wonder then that I didn’t think twice about plagiarising. In my naive mind my high school teacher had just been replaced by that know it all Professor Google.
Old habits die hard. It took me well into my second year of university to adjust the way I learned things. And it was only after I got summoned by the university disciplinary committee that I saw the light. That hearing doubled as both a warning and an education on why plagiarism is not OK. The year was 2005 and all the software that picks up plagiarism that is now readily available online wasn’t as prevalent. At my university only the lectures had access to it. So there I found myself sitting across the room for a panel of white male professors and one female lecturer my assignment projected on the wall behind them with all the plagiarised content circled in red. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Looking at the stern face of these esteemed academics that were set to decide my fate I feared the worst. Surely I would be kicked out of university and put on the next plane home because of my plagiarising ways. Oh the shame.
As I later found out that was my imagination running wild. The worst that could have happened was getting an automatic fail for the unit. And I managed to escape even that. But still I had gotten the message loud and clear. Plagiarism. Not OK. At the end I got away with slap on the wrist and got a fail mark for the assignment only. The irony of that whole situation is that my ability to cram served me well come the exam as I went on to ace that and the practical component of my assessment. I avoided failing the unit altogether. Everything worked out in the end. I passed the unit, stayed in university and learned one of the most important lessons I have ever learned in my life. I eventually adapted my learning philosophy accordingly and this has over the years translated into the way I present information I have learned.
The more I have written the more I have wanted to read. And at times the lines seem blurred as to what words are mine and what words belong to others. On pondering further about this I have slowly started to have a more nuanced understanding of intellectual property. All creative’s on the most part are intellectual property developers. We are often inspired by other people’s intellectual property and most times we use that as a foundation to develop our own. Creativity does not exist in a vacuum. It is in fact a beautiful ecosystem in which we all inspire each other to ‘create’ something of our own. That something though is hardly ever created from nothing. There is a caveat to all this though. Each and every one of us has a story. A story that is unique to us. Our unique experiences are not something we can ever be accused of plagiarising.
What is my point? I am not entirely sure. Sometimes I just want to write and share my story which is what I did in a long winded way today. In all honesty I just felt compelled to write about that one time I thought I was going to get kicked out of university. Make of this what you will. Or even let my intellectual property inspire you in some way to develop your own