In the car today, I happened to hear a report on BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme about plagiarism. The plagiarism in question was not in coursework essays, dissertations or university theses; it was in UCAS personal statements. UCAS has software to detect copied words and phrases. Last year, they sent reports about c.8,500 candidates to various universities. Interestingly, one of the most affected universities has no policy in place to deal with the knowledge that a particular applicant has plagiarised their form. To me, this seems crazy: if an individual is happy to copy stuff off the internet to create a statement that is supposed to be a reflection of their individuality and convey why they should be offered a place, surely it is likely that they won’t think twice about plagiarising academic essays while studying.
For a proofreader, plagiarism is a very tricky area. There are occasionally blatant requests to change highlighted passages in order to pass under the radar of university software. Those are easy to say no to. Sometimes, it’s obvious from an overt shift in someone’s phraseology that a set of phrases aren’t their own. In these cases, I tend to add a comment offering advice on correct citation from sources.
The main difficulty however is in treading the fine line between editing work to improve someone’s written English and turning something into my own writing rather than the student’s. As long as I remain aware of this challenge, hopefully I can continue to work ethically.