A Plague on Both Your Plagiarisms

Plagiarism has been in the news a lot recently.  Two of the bigger stories have been Fareed Zakaria’s admitted cribbing of another article on gun control and the case at Harvard where over 100 students are being investigated for collaborating on a take-home exam.  There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in academia about what we could possibly be doing wrong that so many students and former students out in the world seem to not get the problem with plagiarism.

Excuses people offer for plagiarism range from “I didn’t know that’s what I doing” to “I knew what I was doing, but there’s just so much pressure” (which seems to have been Zakaria’s excuse).  For the record, I admire Zakaria considerably and think he has had a tremendously and uniquely positive influence on international coverage in the mainstream media.  I would hate to see him toppled by this, and I doubt that he will be, despite his apologists’ hyperbolic comparison of the press reaction to a lynch mob.  He should rightly, however, be slapped on the wrist and feel some shame for his deed.

I’ve only come across a few clear cases of deliberate plagiarism among my students in my career (even that is too much).  What is more common is “unintentional” plagiarism, cases that skirt the line and seem to have more to do with students’ fuzziness about what they should do than any intention to steal and mislead.  You could chalk this up to a decline in ethics, an increase in academic pressure, or the technological ease of cutting-and-pasting, but today I’d like to focus on the mixed messages that are being transmitted to students by educators and by the Internet media.  The first, which I will call the “copyrightification” (ugh, I hope I can’t claim credit for that neologism) of plagiarism, we have some control of; the second, the growth of “crowd-sourcing” models on the Internet, is probably here to stay.


When I look at how my institution (and others) initially present the issue of plagiarism to new students, I am struck by the complicated rules.  First, there are the citation methods.  Proper citation is, of course, important for stylistic purposes, but using a footnote instead of a parenthetical citation does not constitute plagiarism.  Citation method has absolutely nothing to do with plagiarism or academic honesty.  Why do we even present that to them in the same syllabus paragraph or composition unit?  I’ve always tried to emphasize the reasons we cite in the first place (verifiability, scientific method, etc.) rather than the proper order for bibliographic information (again, those things are important, but they have nothing to do with plagiarism).  In my first case of plagiarism, the entire essay was lifted word-for-word from a text by the 14th-century theologian ibn Taymiyya found in required course text anthology.  When confronted about why her essay sounded like a grumpy, dead Muslim guy, the student apologized for not putting quotation marks around the selection (which was the entire essay!)  It’s bizarre, but telling.  The student probably knew that copying like that was dishonest, but they tried to get out of it by claiming ignorance of citation method.

Add to that the emphasis on penalties, which seems to criminalize plagiarism.  Now, I want to be clear that there should be consequences for academic dishonesty, but the emphasis on justice can distract from the issue.  At my institution there is an impressive student committee that hears various cases of honor violations. The students take justifiable pride in this long-standing tradition.  But what has always struck me as odd is that the process and consequences for dealing with a case of plagiarism and a case of sexual assault are nearly identical: a very large burden of proof is laid upon the accuser and a guilty verdict results in immediate expulsion.  Leaving aside the advisability of sexual assaults being dealt with “in-house”, I wonder in what universe these are equivalent violations of honor.  Again, plagiarism is indeed an infraction of academic honesty and should have consequences, but we’re sending nonsensical signals on the matter,

Add to this the current “problem” of piracy and copyright infringement, which has gone over the top in many ways.  One of my mother’s favorite restaurants, named Sony’s Diner after Sonya, the owner, was forced to change its name after a lawsuit filed by a large technology company of the same name.  Younger people see very little wrong with sticking it to the man, if the man is a bloated, greedy corporation.  Digital Rights Management, through which computer program usage is controlled through an Internet connection is seen by many as an intrusion, treating law-abiding consumers as potential criminals (and track their computer activity) in order to catch the pirates who can usually bypass the DRM pretty easily.  I am certainly not pro-piracy, but treating plagiarism as copyright infringement is just ridiculous.  Copyright is about economic rights.  In my field at least, academic authors aren’t in it for the money, which is good, because they don’t really get any for their publications.  Respect from peers may play a role, but the real issue is the scientific method, the ability to track an idea back to its source to see if you can replicate or corroborate the author’s analysis.  Equating plagiarism with Internet piracy makes as much sense as punishing it the same as a sexual assault.


I’ve always been of two minds about Wikipedia.  On the one hand, the idea that reality can be determined by how many “likes” or “hits” a fact gets is profoundly disturbing.  As Stephen Colbert’s term wikiality conveys, this attitude has come to shape the entire way we consume news and media.   While Wikipedia and its ilk are getting slightly better about attribution (houses built on sand, anyone?), it is still little more than a glorified blog consisting of self-motivated contributions – sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad (yep, this is a blog.  Clap me in irony!)

On the other hand, there is something exciting about what we now call “crowd-sourcing”, the creation of works of scholarship or art that are built through a collaboration with the public.  I think this phenomenon is with us to stay in some form or other, for good or ill.  Some of the traditional forms of authorship and ownership are being eroded, and that might not be an entirely bad thing.  Proprietary rights to ideas appears to be a distinctly modern concept.  Certainly medieval authors in Europe and the Islamic World credited predecessors and colleagues in their works of scholarship, but the process of copying texts often involved additions, editing, and commentary that allowed these sources to continue growing and evolving long after the original authors were gone.  This phenomenon can be maddening for historians and philologists, but wrapping your head around the different sense of authorship that existed before our era can be key to truly understanding how these thinkers viewed the nature of knowledge itself.

In conclusion, I think plagiarism is a problem, but the solution to the problem doesn’t lie in couching the issue in a legalistic framework that reduces it to copyright law or citation methodology.  Instead, we need to focus on the more fundamental, albeit more slippery, cultural assumptions about authorship, collaboration, and the scientific method.  We perhaps need to be open to the possibility that these assumptions are rapidly evolving into something new.  Is there a way to harness the democratization of knowledge to the pursuit of integrity and truth, or are we doomed to a dystopian wikiality?

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  1. Farhad Manjoo has an interesting take on the Harvard case:


    I would disagree with his central argument. Sometimes the purpose of such exams is not primarily to get the right answer, but to foster or test the research skills themselves. Indeed, in the work force collaboration is rightly encouraged, but if you want to be a contributor to that collaborative process, you need to be able to think and work for yourself, as well. I will agree with Manjoo, though, that the “rules” of the exam and the class appear to be sending mixed messages.

  2. It’s certainly getting harder to figure out where the lines are between productive collaboration, sharing, freeloading, and plagarism. It’s disappointing when someone we admire gets caught stealing someone else’s work (I think Stephen Ambrose was accused of that shortly before his death). In addition to the issues you mentioned about the possible ambiguity of the the requirements for the exam versus for the class, some have argued that part of the problem is a culture where the possibility of failure cannot be tolerated. Better to borrow the right answer from someone else than to come up with something yourself that might be wrong. As a teacher I was always a little ambivalent about plagarism and cheating. I obviously didn’t want my students to do it, but I thought it was mainly just sad and pathetic if they did. I didn’t really want to spend my time ferreting out the cheaters, but of course I didn’t want them to do better in the class then the people who did the work. I agree that the student legal system, while admirable in many ways, often seems like overkill for someone being too lazy to write their own paper. The one time I had to turn someone in for plagarism, I was impressed by the students on the honor committee, but I didn’t want to go through that process again.


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