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Paralysed by plagiarism

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Column I recently discovered something truly startling from a student. We were discussing the age-old problem of how to make sure an essay answers the question, and the value of concluding an argument by adopting a particular position. It was then that she confided in me something I'd never heard before.

She agreed that while it would be good to be able to offer one's own argument or view, she was paranoid she might mistake someone else's idea for her own. Sometimes, she said, she would have a great idea, but felt unable to guarantee that she wasn’t "stealing" it.

The cause of this paranoia, as she was fully aware, is the relentless moralistic campaign that colleges now feel compelled to wage, highlighting the evils of plagiarism. The cause of their paranoia is equally discernible: the internet.

It turned out, after sharing this story with other tutors, that this student was far from alone. Many others had expressed an identical fear.

Due to the ease with which essays (or chunks of prose) can now be circulated online, college authorities are drumming it into students that they must - repeat must - be sure all work they produce is their own.

If the threat of being tagged a "plagiarist" is now inhibiting students from even attempting to offer something original, clearly the campaigns of universities have backfired drastically. If things continue in this direction, students will end up restricting themselves to the regurgitation of whatever it is deemed acceptable to regurgitate, namely facts, figures, and quotations.

Perhaps if there were some equivalent of DRM for opinions and arguments, colleges would make life easier for students by slapping restrictions on ideas they weren’t allowed to use.

As easy as it is to blame the pre-web dinosaurs for inciting panic, however, it needs to be recognised that there is something profound at stake here, and their disorientation is understandable. One way of understanding this is to turn to a new book by one of Britain's most influential policy advisors, Charles Leadbeater.

The book is entitled We-think, and it is not shy of grand predictions:

"In the 20th century you were identified by what you owned: your car, your house. In the 21st century we will also be defined by how we share and what we give away," he writes.

The argument is exaggerated for polemical purposes. Meanwhile, it seems perverse to ever celebrate the demise of individual, autonomous thought, in favour of an epistemology mediated by the Hive Mind.

We-think sounds like the title of a chilling dystopian novel, in the vein of 1984. For Leadbeater, it's the interchange, the very processes of idea exchange that represents the epistemological breakthrough, and this is to be celebrated:

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