Some Thoughts on Plagiarism

In the last week or so a fellow graduate student, Robert Kurtz, uncovered a couple cases of plagiarism. He called me and we chatted about the different courses of action we were going to take and the implications of plagiarism in general. I have to remind myself often that just because I know through and through that plagiarism is stealing, and stealing is wrong, others may not understand this (or they may plead a case that they don’t understand this when they clearly do — this is what I call Cold Blooded Plagiarism).

The cases Kurtz uncovered had to do with a couple undergraduate student plagiarists cutting entire sentences from the old Internet or textbook and passing them off as their own. This, we told the classes — Wait. For. It. — was wrong. By and large the majority of students understood this. But with any organization or institution (I’m increasingly learning), there are always a few who disappoint and depress the rest.

Large scale cases of plagiarism (what I like to call Competitive Plagiarism) included the shenanigans intrinsic to Enron (circa 2001) and Madoff. It was plagiarism in the sense that short-term accountant fudging invariably turned into huge and delusional bubbles of profit, and this in turn generated an inertia of expectations. By this point, there was no way for the lies to stop because expectations had been developed, and investors believed what the plagiarists — who carried badges of Authority — delivered. The only thing that made it stop was for it all to come crashing down around them. It played out then as it played out this last week: the plagiarists are brought into some kind of court, and publicly shamed outside of court. In the case of large scale plagiarism, the thief gets sent to White Collar Prison (that’s just kind of how it is). Small-time plagiarists get locked up in the Criminal Justice System (that’s also just kind of how it is).

One of the goals I want to communicate to students, though, is not only why plagiarism is wrong, but how civilization and societies cannot rest or prosper on foundations of lies and deceit (well, not any more than this planet already has — we always seem to be at a threshold). There is a website (be sure to cite your sources so you don’t end up plagiarizing content in an effort to combat plagiarism), and following is the definition I produced some months ago for a mock syllabus in a graduate seminar, the Teaching of College History. The definition is a hybrid of NDSU’s code of academic conduct, some of what Dr. Tracy Barrett uses in her syllabi, and some of my own thoughts as well:

The American Oxford Dictionary defines plagiarism as the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. Plagiarism is, to be blunt, theft. Plagiarism is intolerable because it undermines the time, energy, critical thinking and writing used to produce a product, term papers or otherwise. Thus, plagiarism cheats not only the individual who is a plagiarist, but it also swindles fellow students and scholars who do put the time into playing within the defined rules. In short, this is why plagiarists will be disciplined in accordance with University policy.

Students have my official and unofficial blessing to openly shame and mock on social media sites and in public anyone who plagiarizes. This is regardless of political or religious affiliation, ideology, ethnicity, creed, nation, cultural relativism, and so on and so forth. I told them to especially mock plagiarists who are co-workers, fellow students, colleagues and comrades within their own organization, since the brand and integrity of the institution — something they are a part of — requires a solid foundation. Plagiarists undermine that foundation, this whether they know it or not.

One more point: if you call a plagiarist out, be sure to have data that supports it. Empiricism, evidence and data sets us free, so be sure to always get it from the source, and don’t be shy about citations, bibliographies and references. We’re all in this together.

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