The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Plagiarism in the classroom.

I once taught at a tertiary institution in Singapore which shall remain nameless, given the topic in hand.

One day, after my lecture, a Chinese mainland student came to me with a rather earnest expression on his face. He presented me with a bundle of printed sheets, clearly taken off the internet. They were of an academic paper.

"Can you help me?" he began, clearly under some sort of pressure to get something done.

"How?" I asked, wondering where this was leading.

"Can you help me write my thesis?", he said, thrusting the academic paper towards me.

I felt most uncomfortable, at once - but didn't want to be abrupt.

I looked at the paper. It was not written by the student who had given it to me. It was a very complex academic paper written by someone who did not know the meaning of clarity. I could barely understand a word of it on first glance - and I was a native speaker of English accustomed to academic papers. It was the kind of paper that required very careful consideration to extract any meaning from it at all. It had been written by someone gifted in abstruseness but utterly ungifted as a writer.

"What do you want me to do?"

"Can you rewrite this for me?" He asked, without any consciousness that he shouldn't be doing so, pointing at the heavy paper in my hands.

"So...", I began slowly, as the enormity of the academic crime he wanted to involve me in, came to be understood by me, "You want me to write your thesis for you..."

He nodded, again unaware that what he had asked was wrong.

"And you want me to do so by taking all the ideas from this paper?"

Again, he nodded, unaware of the dishonesty of his request.

"No." I said, to his evident surprise and apparent anger. "Why don't you write it yourself?"

He was most put out. The notion that I, his teacher, would actually refuse to help him cheat his way to a degree was seemingly quite beyond him. He seemed shocked, angry, disappointed and speechless all at once.

What made his attempted crime all the worse was that he was completely incapable of understanding the paper he had decided to plagiarize. It was most definitely beyond him - yet he wanted to borrow its erudition for his own advancement. His English was decidedly dodgy - almost as bad as his morality. Yet, he had identified it as being just the material he needed to secure him his degree.

I don't know whether he managed to get any staff member to help him plagiarize a paper for his thesis. Perhaps he thought that I, being a foreigner, would be an easy mark, not being directly involved in the everyday issues of the College, in Singapore. Perhaps he asked other expats and found one who eventually obliged. All I know is that there was no way he was good enough to write a dissertation in English, at all, ever, by himself.

He never came to me again with such a request.

The incident, however, made me wonder how common plagiarism is, in Singapore. Is it widespread? Are hundreds or thousands of students "earning" degrees on the back of plagiarism? Is academic dishonesty rife in Singapore's educational institutions?

I do not have an answer. However, the very boldness with which that young man from China approached me made me think that he thought it a normal thing to do. He seemed almost to think it was his right to get me to help him win his degree by such unfair means.

Perhaps it is not a Singaporean problem, but a problem of the Chinese mainlanders who come here. If that is the case, then Singapore's educational institutions need to be alert to this possibility lest they end up handing out qualifications to the most unqualified people of all: cheats and plagiarists.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:58 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

While you are shocked, I am not. Many Chinese incl those in Spore/Msia etc are very amoral and seem to have no scruples in general. Add to the fact that there is cultural pressure in succeeding in studies and you've got the situation that you faced. I lol'ed when you said he had the affrontary by not knowing jack around the top notch paper but just wanted to tease some 'cool' bits for his own project.

5:17 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The problem with plagiarism is that it undermines the whole education system. If it is indeed common then there are many people out there "succeeding" fraudulently. That is unfair on all those who are honest.

Best wishes

10:24 AM  
Blogger Miao said...

It was a very complex academic paper written by someone who did not know the meaning of clarity.

This statement could very well describe Immanuel Kant's writings. Anyway...

Well, actually I am a victim of plagiarism as well. I am currently studying in a local university, and I keep a blog myself. One day I received an email from a reader who found my blog while doing research for her school assignment - it so happened that I had written an entry on the very same topic. (She is a secondary school student.) So she copied what I wrote and passed it off as her own. She didn't cite my blog in her bibliography either. After she'd gotten back her results, she sent me an email and boasted happily that she received unusually good marks for that essay. I was pretty shocked - after all, when you pilfer someone's intellectual property, you'd want to keep quiet about it.

I was rather upset and confided in a friend about it. He said that secondary school students mostly just have very vague ideas about copyright laws - the girl who stole my contents probably thought that:

Informing the author that you've used his/her work = Asking for the author's permission to use his/her work

So I sent her principal an email about it, and he promised to educate his students on copyright laws. Most people, I believe, are like the Chinese student who solicited your help - they either have very unclear ideas about copyright laws, or have no notion of intellectual integrity.

Another incident happened to me when I was in my first semester. I took a philosophy class, and for that course we were required to write two essays. My former classmate (let's call her T) in junior college also signed up for the same class. I put in a lot of effort - I consulted my tutor, and I ruminated all the points I made in my essays, and I kept refining them. My hard work paid off - I ended up with very good grades for both papers. But then I heard that T had done even better than me - and I was very puzzled, because T was not an exceptionally diligent person, and her argumentative skills and reasoning abilities were rather unimpressive. After that I found out from friends that she had borrowed sample essays from her senior (who thought that she was borrowing them for reference only), and had passed these essays off as her own. (There were many philosophy tutors, and the chances of getting the same tutor as her senior were quite low.) Naturally I felt very aggrieved and agitated, but there was nothing I could do, because T could always denied ever having done such a thing - she could just say that it was a malicious rumour.

When someone cheats, he/she is doing his/her peers a grave injustice - but unfortunately it is sometimes difficult to catch all these cheaters. I can only hope that no one would agree to help the Chinese student mentioned in your post. I don't mean to stereotype, but the anonymous reader who left the previous comment was right - those Chinese people in Singapore are giving themselves a very bad name.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Miao, your experience leads me to wonder how often I have been plagiarized too.

Someone once asked permission to "Quote from your blog or paraphrase it in a paper". I replied that he could only quote directly and had to attribute every quote with a mention of the blog. He didn't reply - which makes me think he didn't do as requested but probably lifted it, instead.

Plagiarism is something that needs to be treated much more toughly than it is. Any instance of plagiarism should result in the expulsion of the student/firing of the academic staff member and the ruination of their career as a MINIMUM response. That way, perhaps it would become a lesser problem.

Best wishes on your University career Miao.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Miao said...

My university has a rule that says students guilty of plagiarism will be expelled immediately. But not all cheaters will be caught. T chose to pilfer her senior's writings instead of academic works by famous authors - it was a clever move, because no one would then suspect that those essays she handed in were not written by her.

Thank you for your well-wishes. Perhaps you'd like to license your blog here: It MIGHT help to deter readers who are tempted to steal your stuff.

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am the poster of the 1st anon comment above and want to make clear that plagiarism is not mostly limited to PRC citizens but is a notorious problem among Chinese in general. They tend to be amoral and shrug off any ethical concerns as long as 'they can't/won't get caught'. So plagiarism is not something intrinsically bad or something to be ashamed about hence the open bragging. Add the strong cultural pressure to succeed and local kiasu element on top of that and you've got a problem.

3:36 AM  

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