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The Elephant in the Room: Plagarism

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.

3 replies on “The Elephant in the Room: Plagarism”

What I find interesting are the underlying cultural values and norms that attitudes towards plagiarism reveal. The ideal of intellectual property is a very Western one. For example, when I was working as an English tutor at my alma mater, many of my international students (who were primarily from East Asia, though some were from Africa) had no idea what plagiarism was – let alone how to ensure that they weren’t plagiarizing. The concept of intellectual property was completely foreign to them in a way that it wasn’t foreign even to those international students coming from Western nations.

I never plagiarized but I definitely got a little sloppy as my graduate studies progressed. If I came up with a seemingly original idea that I later came across in an extant article, I wouldn’t cite it or account for it. Stuff like that, which was sort of the problem as far as I’m concerned. I’ve commented before about the absurdity of the academic assumption that running yourself ragged is an integral part of the graduate experience; I just didn’t have the time or energy to write stellar papers, and I don’t think many full-time students with lives do either. I’m not sure this is quite what you’re addressing, but the canon of information being what it is (and more years in school becoming the norm), we’re running out of original things to say. I don’t see how anyone can get through, say, a 30-credit graduate lit program (ie, writing around 10 20-page final papers) without accidentally cribbing someone else’s ideas. Maybe it’s the established process of WRITING PAPERS as the end-all of academic achievement that needs to change?

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