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March 08, 2008

Plagiarism sucks

It has been my casual impression, as a teacher, that graduate students are plagiarizing more frequently than they use to (I haven't taught undergrads since the earlier 90s, so I have no opinion about them). This view is widely held, I sense, though I don't know if there is much careful evidence to support it. Certainly there is a sense that plagiarism is easier, now that there is so much text available on the Internet and cut-and-paste is so easy; the economist in me thinks that if the costs have gone down and the expected penalties are not much higher then the amount of plagiarism will increase.

(It is not immediately obvious that expected penalties have increased: it is also somewhat easier to catch Internet-based plagiarism, since search tools facilitate finding matching phrases. But as a teacher I think that the ease of catching has not increased as much as the ease of plagiarizing.)

In confronting students in the past few years, I also have the casual sense that there is less understanding of why plagiarism is unacceptable in academia. A typical response is "I did the research, I found the information, why should I have to rewrite it in my own words?"

Jack Shafer has published a column in Slate.com magazine entitled "Eight Reasons Plagiarism Sucks". He focuses on plagiarizing in journalism, but his concerns for the most part translate to academia as well, and are worth reading by scholars. Most people seem to understand that plagiarism is a type of theft (but doubt that original authors lose much or care much if they aren't cited in an unpublished term paper). But Shafer emphasizes harm to original authors is but one, and perhaps the least concern. His other concerns include "Journalism is about truth, not lies", "It corrupts the craft", "It promotes the dishonest".

When I try to educate straying students, I, too, emphasize the importance of trust between author and reader. I point out that if a boss finds that an employee is cutting corners and plagiarizing, even if the ideas presented are good, the boss will stop trusting the employee, and that is the beginning of the end.

There is another concern for students: You don't learn as much when you plagiarize. Learning is much more than learning to find what others have written on a topic. Even if you do nothing more than rewrite the ideas in your own words, cognitive psychologists have convincingly shown that the deeper processing and rehearsal that this entails greatly improves the writer's learning of the material. (Which is not to say that rewriting someone else's ideas is enough to avoid plagiarism: you need to provide attribution for the ideas, as well.) And there is also the not small matter of learning how to write in the first place!

Posted by jmm at March 8, 2008 06:57 PM

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