Editorial – Bad Medicine

?Genius,? wrote inventor Thomas Edison, ?is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.? Yet in the desire for inspired work but with quicker results, some individuals choose to take the easy way out. They substitute someone else’s inspiration for their own perspiration?and the result is plagiarism.

As content proliferates across the Internet, attitudes toward intellectual property become more and more lax. Lines blur and are crossed, and some writers claim to be unaware of the relationship between online material and plagiarism.

Not so most students. From the outset, universities, colleges, and even grade schools and high schools make it abundantly clear that plagiarizing material?essentially cheating?is always inappropriate. In fact, It’s so offensive that students caught plagiarizing are disciplined, often being dismissed or suspended from their school or program of study. And although the web has caused some confusion, university officials are unambiguous: plagiarizing will not be tolerated. Period.

With this as the background, It’s hard to understand some of the disagreement over the recent scandal surrounding the Dean of the University of Alberta’s Medical School. The Dean, Dr. Philip Baker, allegedly heavily plagiarized another doctor’s speech during his recent commencement address. Some students in the audience, recognizing the speech, quickly found it online (with one hearer apparently following along on his mobile device).

Dr. Baker apologized profusely to the indignant student body. But, as CTV Edmonton reported, this was no accident: Dr. Baker’s excuse was that the original speech had ?inspired [him] and resonated with [his] experiences.?

It inspired him, but apparently not enough to write his own material.

There’s talk of dismissing Dr. Baker, or of asking for his resignation. Yet others are quick to defend him, noting that because the speech wasn’t technically academic work, it didn’t merit strong discipline.

Does it matter? Even if it the speech’s purpose wasn’t directly academic, it was in an academic setting?and a school’s Dean speaking at a school function carries a certain weight of example.

More than that, ignoring such an instance of plagiarism hurts the whole academic world.

Clifford Orwin, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, got it right when he said that plagiarism is an offence that rises above any others perpetrated at a school. In fact, he notes, plagiarism is a ?crime against the university, the primordial academic offence . . . [and it] strikes at the soul of the institution.?

It makes little sense that a school that takes plagiarism so seriously could possibly look the other way when a flagrant abuse of intellectual honesty occurs.

And It’s in even poorer taste given the occasion. Commencement is the culmination of an educational journey, almost the pinnacle of that journey, if you will. It’s a time during which students, professors, and friends and family can all reflect with pride on the very best of the road travelled. Awards are presented to top achievers. Degrees?the goals long pursued and long sweated over?are finally granted. The finest class representative is chosen to deliver a speech on the students? behalf. Hard work finally pays off. The mood is one of success, of pride in one’s accomplishments.

Commencement is a celebration of excellence?and all aspects of the event should reflect that.

That’s why plagiarism in a commencement speech is especially inappropriate. Universities rely on, and require, independent thinking and analysis in order to foster a true spirit of learning. It’s unthinkable that in a speech intended to celebrate the ability of students to pass through the challenges of this analysis and thought, on a day dedicated to success, a Dean would flaunt the long-standing pillars of academic institutions and would choose to plagiarize materials.

It’s even more unthinkable that other professors, equally representative of the academic world’s commitment to intellectual honesty, would defend him.

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