I was reading the Chronicle of Higher Education, as is a general habit of mine, and I came across an interesting article by Rob Jenkins about his view of what is a “rational response to plagiarism.” The whole thing is a good read, but I have some (possibly nit-picky) issues with his post, and I’d love to hear what you all thought, too.
Jenkins outlines plagiarism as a form of cheating, and discusses the steps he’s taken to address plagiarism problems in the undergraduate classes he teaches. Suggestions like in-class first drafts of papers, and multiple drafts go a long way in restructuring the class in such a way as to encourage student learning and discourage plagiarism, and I appreciate them. I also appreciate his point that spending too much time focusing on cheating is a waste of time and can be detrimental to the class environment. I completely agree. However, I don’t see plagiarism as cheating.
The way I see it, cheating is a way to get known, concrete answers without having to come up with them on one’s own. Cheating would be writing down the answers to a multiple choice test, for example, or having a crib sheet of notes during a written exam. What you’re doing in these cases is presenting your knowledge of accepted facts and theories as greater than it is. Plagiarism seems like a different beast.
With plagiarism, ideas are stolen. The plagiarist attributes to themselves ideas and concepts and new thoughts that were never theirs. It’s not pretending one knows that the earth orbits the sun ““ it’s stealing another person’s intellectual product. To me, plagiarism is much worse than cheating.
Maybe that’s a sign of me being in academia for far too long ““ after all, within the ivory tower, we’re taught that plagiarism is the Grim Reaper, the mark of the end of an academic career, and the one sure way to completely destroy years and years of work, reputation, and effort. Ideas are seen as the most prized capital and stealing them is, again within the confines of academia, one of the worst things a person dedicated to knowledge can do. It’s dishonest.
Jenkins ends his article with the advice that we “let it go.” Oh boy, I don’t mean to misrepresent his words. He says that we should not let the quest to squelch plagiarism dominate our teaching philosophy. I agree with this. But I think that it is our duty as educators to explain why plagiarism is the problem it is, why it isn’t just a snazzy version of cheating, and why creating our own ideas and giving due credit to the ideas of others is crucial. The way the issue of plagiarism is discussed in many universities (definitely the ones I’ve had experience with) focuses on the punishment, on the general “this is bad ““ please read more on our website” type of thing. Moving away from that to a frank discussion of what academic dishonesty is and why it matters could lead to a fruitful discussion and a more cohesive and successful classroom experience.