back to article We-think, I-think ... and Groupthink

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 …


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  1. Dave

    Plagiarism or Research?

    Taking input from one person is plagiarism, taking input from many is research. I think the only real solution may be to attribute ideas with a reference list at the bottom, a practice that has been acceptable to the academic community for many years. If you've taken something from a Google search, rewrite it on your own words but reference where you found the information. If a group have had a discussion, reference the fact. I've seen "private correspondence" in reference lists before now, so vague acknowledgements to the fact that an idea is not completely original to the author is also considered acceptable.

  2. Etienne

    one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration

    The student said "she would have a great idea, but felt unable to guarantee that she wasn’t 'stealing' it."

    Surly plagiarism is more concerned with people cut'n'pasting large parts of other people's work, not sharing the same ideas.

    In the case of an essay the hard work is constructing the argument to support the idea, understanding the consequences of the idea and writing all this down concisely and readably. It doesn't matter if the idea is new or old, commonly held or unusual... ideas are cheap, its implementation that counts.

    Everyone with any spare time comes up with hundreds of ideas for inventions, ways to improve the government, plots for books or TV shows... The silly part is then complaining that "I came up with it first" when someone else actually puts in the 99% effort to make something happen. Even if all they do is go though the pain of getting a patent.

  3. Dag

    We-Think, I-Organise

    Ok, so we may not be able to have any new ideas in the modern world? Everything has been done already? Everything I could possibly think about has been thought about my someone else?

    Theoretical eclecticism, and shared ideas across the globe certainly create an image of the individual being lost within a hive mind.

    However, if you look at what "thinking" really is, there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel.

    Chaos is the paradox of order and disorder. Disorder is what exists outside of the mind, Order is what the mind does to filter the world into something it can make sense of.

    One who structures ideas into an 'opinion' may chose their own facts, may use different ideas to the next person. Originality is no longer the "idea" it is in fact the "organisation" of information.

    Plagerising is claiming an idea as your own.

    Offering an opinion must include a disclaimer: "In my opinion...".

  4. Martin Budden Silver badge

    I root, therefore my children are.

    Does it really matter if that student is suffering from typical student uncertainty? The human race will continue regardless, and that student will, in all likelihood, contribute to that continuation sooner or later.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    oh get over yourself !

    Navel-gazing angst just turns my stomach.

    Subjective sciences have always relied on a certain amount of received wisdom, references and precedent to prove their cases.

    If you don't like that environment switch to a purely empirical science based on laboratory experiment.

  6. Caoilte

    say something, anything.

    I don't think you're saying anything except new technology means new ways for people to conform or not conform.

    At least Colbert has a target with truthiness and Manjoo a point with "post-fact societies".

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    He thinks

    The fact that Charles Leadbetter has produced this book - that _he_ is the author - rather neatly disproves his own assertion.

    Or that's what I think anyway.

    Coat? I never take it off.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    Plagiarism was easier before the Internet

    It was so much easier to plagiarise when I was doing my university degree.

    The contents of about a dozen magazine articles thoroughly mixed together and a few word changes made up about 80% of my 3rd year project dissertation.

    These days it would be too easy to compare a report like mine against on line sources and find what had been copied.

  9. Tom

    Re: Plagiarism or Research?


    I'm writing my dissertation right now, and I'm trying to do just that - reference everything I find. Unfortunately, it's now frowned upon to cite Wikipedia in your references (thanks, TheRegister!), or use some unsubstantiated web-guru as a source in an academic context. This leaves me in a dilemma: do I spend 10x as long searching for a reliable source, or get laughed at by an ivory-towered academic?

    Also, this groupthink is not a new thing. Academic cliques have been around since Socrates hung out with Plato.

  10. Paul Kinsler

    somewhat related is ....

    Crime and punishment in scientific research; Mathieu Bouville

    Abstract: Arguments against scientific misconduct one finds in the literature generally fail to support current policies on research fraud: they may not prove wrong what is typically considered research misconduct and they tend to make wrong things that are not usually seen as scientific fraud, in particular honest errors. I argue that society cannot set a rule enjoining scientists to be honest, so any such rule can only be internal to science. Therefore society cannot legitimately enforce it. Moreover, until an argument is provided to prove that lack of honesty is far worse than lack of technical competence, intentional deceit should not be punished much more harshly than technical errors. Keywords: cheating; ethics; fabrication; falsification; integrity; plagiarism; research fraud; scientific misconduct.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not so, Swift?

    The bit about Descartes sounds like The Battle of the Books in _Tale of a Tub_.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Herd Mentality

    I've been teaching college students in various capacities for nearly 2 decades. One thing has not changed; very few of them are truly original, critical or creative thinkers. Out of laziness, apathy or simple lack or intellect, most of them want easy answers, lists of "facts" and "rules" they can apply.

    This dynamic aids the process you describe.

    "Wikidpedia" is both a symptom and cause also. Plagiarism is rampant there, yet at the same time there is a big taboo against "Original research" and a push to have every statement of every article inline cited.

    Studies have shown less than 1% contribute anything substantial in terms or quality, well-written content to it. Most of the rest is added by plagiarists and parrots.

  13. Sam Liddicott

    Wkipedia is good as an index of sources

    Lookup in Wikipedia and find their sources and learn from those sources.

    Then write what you learned quite properly quote wikipedia's sources.


  14. Etienne

    April fool?

    Is this just a wind up?

  15. Paul M.


    "Originality is no longer the "idea" it is in fact the "organisation" of information."

    That's like saying "good food isn't good food, it is in fact a recipe"

    That's generally useless if you want to know what's good food. You can "organise information" to get any answer you want. Eg, Hockey Stick temperature curves.

    Sorry Dag, but it's a sign of failure when people get obsessed with processes, rather than putting real ideas to the test. Or when people try to explain things in terms of "information" - an utterly useless generalisation.

    Unfortunately all that creates is minds suitable only for bureaucratic tasks.

  16. Mitch Kent

    Surely she'd find out when she did the research?

    Bright Spark, great idea, woohoo! Now I'll go do some research on my great idea, after all, research is pretty integral to essay writing... Oh look! Someone else had the same idea - I'll reference that and build on it...

    I'm sorry, but I *really* don't see what the problem is.

    re: April Fool - I'm fed up of trying to tell which is fake and which is real today. Hell, if someone showed me flying penguins I'd prob... oh, wait a ... EGADS!

  17. Luther Blissett

    Another April Fool shurely

    this one with the postmodern angle. Good old Reg.

    It is not plagiarism to have/express/publish/propagate the same idea as someone else, but to pass it off as your own. Are HE institutions so dumbed down now that this idea can no longer be successfully inculcated into the great unwashed that the nu labour project is stuffing into them?

    One idea doesn't of course make an argument, a scientific theory, or an engineering theory. But one idea added to an existing context can create something new, interesting, and useful, even if the idea has been around for thousands of years. Look at religion, sects and schisms. Look at the Top 20.

    A pertinent case relates to songs. For a legal action for plagiarism to succeed it must be shown that the alleged plagiarist had the opportunity to hear the original work. Sometimes this test fails, as does the action, on the reasonable conclusion that both parties produced the same work at about the same time unbeknown to each other. It's because of this (and getting lots of legal suits from chancers) that Lloyd-Webber gave up listening to demos people sent him.

  18. Schultz

    Spreading good ideas

    Surely human progress relies in large part on spreading unoriginal thought, how else would good ideas find good applications? And not to discount the value of the human filter - to separate the good from bad, clever from stupid - clearly a value in itself. Most influential / 'great' people didn't come up with good ideas, but recognized and promoted those of others.

    To cite, or not to cite, that's the question!

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Got to test the marking system somehow

    I can remember wondering just how objective was the marking scheme used by teachers - this was back in the days where there was no course work marks (though just by a hair), all 100% exam.

    So, a short story was taken from one of the most prolific modern authors of the time (oxford bloke), and translated verbatim. Unfortunately, he only managed to squeak a b-. To this day I cannot be sure the teacher marking didn't twig, but the author's language style was quite simple so it may have passed undetected.

    Anyway it just go to show that academia is a subjective business masquerading as something objective, quite the antithesis of knowledge. Everyone is a critic, and the cover of book most certainly appears to be the thing that people in the know judge.

    Knowledge is built on and modified, there are only a few story lines, and very little is original. More effort was spent on analysing this little experiment, then would ever have been put into a paper. And a lot more knowledge was gained, then just touting out the normal template crude for marks.

    There was a variation on the above which was; essay by thesaurus, where an old essay you had done before was just shifted thru a thesaurus, they could be a bit hit or bachelor girl though.

  20. Dave Bell

    Cogito ergo sum.

    One more philosophical interpretation of Descartes' famous line is that he was saying that the only certainty is "I think". Everything else depends on the reliability of our perception of whatever else there might be. Unfortunately, our unreliable perception of the lack of thinking of [insert politician's name here] means that we can only be certain that, because "I think", "I am".

    A pity, really; the world would be so much better if a team of elite philosophers could be despatched to prove to certain politicians that they didn't exist.

  21. Shabble

    I have a friend in Minsk...

    I hate to display any original thinking myself, but I suspect that very few people have ever actually had original thoughts, and that the students who are apparently afraid of 'thinking' in case they accidentally plagiarise someone else are highly unlikely to be the type of people who do come up with novel ideas anyway.

    The truth is that widespread intellectual creativity and independence has never been seen as a good thing by our rulers. It's simply too dangerous to have millions of people constantly calling into question the ethical basis for the 'social contract', deciding that life is essentially meaningless, or concluding that democracy is really just a dictatorship working on the behalf of people who voted largely on the basis of who has the nicest smile or who gives them the biggest bank balance.

    You see, a quick look back through history shows that the typical independently minded intellectual is arrogant, self-promoting and pretty certain that they are at least as clever and original as they actually are. There will always be strong social forces applied against thinking about new ideas, but there will always be creative individuals and groups having original thoughts because the creative people who change society are those who say 'I don't give a sh*t what you think, I know that I'm right and that you're an idiot.' A mild fear of accidental plagiarism isn't going to bother them. Anyway, originality is encouraged amongst the intellectual elite,; its just that most university students in the UK no longer fall into this bracket (esp those studying political science). Those students with some element of creativity usually either opt out of the rat-race altogether or end up in jobs where creativity means finding new ways of screwing over consumers.

    If there is a dearth of useful creativity in society at the moment, then it is because we are mired in this awful post-modern, neoconservative, anti-realism rut where anyone (eg Richard Dawkins) who comes along with something important to say is mocked and ridiculed for his or her failure to understand just how socially harmful voicing well-argued unilateral thoughts is. "No, Richard, don't you realise it is wrong to criticise religious people for being deluded! If people choose to be deluded we should support them, not insist that adhering to reason may actually be a good thing!" Plagiarism isn’t the problem – it’s the ruthless tolerance for all ideas irrespective of their rational or empirical merit that has us tied up in mediocrity. Genuine creativity is drowned out by the chorus of idiots repeating their favourite dogmatic ideas about the value of religion or the importance of democratic freedom (tell that one to the Iraqi PM who just used our troops to bail himself out of a disastrous military campaign against his political rivals – you know the ones… the ‘militants’ who are going to receive more votes that the PM’s candidates in the forthcoming local ‘elections’).

  22. john
    Paris Hilton

    not again

    Charles Leadbetter one of Britains most influential policy advisers? Well that figures. Who better to have an idea how to write a book with some vague ideas using trendy terminology (web 2.0) and base it on a simple and stupid catchword (we-think).

    Get a publisher with a good promotions budget and go on the talk show circuit and all the drooling sheep will bleet with fascination at the remarkable intellect of this astounding man. After all the sheep don't really understand what he is saying but it sounds very profound and they are assured by the talking heads that it IS all very profound.

    Not to disparage the work that CL has done. It certainly takes effort to write a book and get it promoted and talked about. If that much effort had been expended by an intellectual it would surely have produced something worthwhile. Nice to have something for the Oprah crowd, they must have their entertainment.

    Looking for some evidence of deep thinking there will surely lead to wailing and gnashing of teeeth. Much like the poor student stymied by our fixation on "intellectual property". She can't get passed the idea that someone else must own her thoughts so she'd better keep quiet or get sued. But if she keeps quiet then how to produce any work? A more appropriate time for sackcloth and ashes, I can't think of.

    Paris because she is an influential policy adviser too.

  23. david Silver badge

    Teachers all quote textbooks, why can't students?

    The whole business is hypocritical. How many teachers are teaching their own original thoughts? And then they have the gall to insist that student work must be original!

  24. Bernd Felsche

    W(h)ither Society?

    If we can only exist on our own, original ideas, then we can neither communicate nor develop as a society.

    Many ideas are assimilated through communication. They become our own as we fit those in with the assembled ideas already in our tiny minds. When we express those "same", previously -assimilated ideas subsequently, we do so after we have been changed by the idea. The expression becomes inalienably, our own work.

    The object of then anti-plagiarism policies is to counter the mindless copy-paste construction of essays and papers. Besides there being the potential Copyright violation.

    Copy-paste is however entirely different to the question originally posed; perhaps by somebody who didn't want to do their homework. Such is the challenge when students are more clever than the average tutor. :-)

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