All your profs are wrong about plagiarism -

All your profs are wrong about plagiarism

It’s not stealing, and saying that it is does more harm than good


In the academic world, articles like this one by Crawford Kilian that warn students away from plagiarism are ubiquitous. Some, like Kilian’s are quite well-written. And they’re all wrong.

Not wrong in precise detail, but wrong in the way they conceive the nature of plagiarism. Kilian, for example, reminds us that the etymology of the word links the crime to kidnapping, only now you’re “stealing ideas instead of people” and notes that “scholars don’t like seeing you plagiarize their work, just as retailers resent your shoplifting.” All this is not controversial and people say it all the time. Google “plagiarism is stealing” and you get 13 000 hits.

But plagiarism is not stealing, and saying that it is does more harm than good.

One problem with the “plagiarism is stealing” line is that it rings hollow, and rightly so. Normally when people steal things, they deprive the owner of the things they steal. If you steal my car, I don’t have my car anymore. But every undergraduate senses that if they copy text from Wikipedia and paste it into their essays, no one is deprived of anything. They’re not even depriving anyone of royalties.

Even worse, though, the stealing metaphor situates the bad behavior in the wrong place. Stealing is a crime against the rightful owner, but taking material from a book or a web site and turning it in as your own original work doesn’t harm the original author. Instead, the offence is an offence against your instructor, your course, your university, and academia in general. The problem with taking the work of another and passing it off as your own is not that you’ve taken the work of another, it’s that you’ve passed it off as your own.

Plagiarism, therefore, is not stealing. It’s counterfeiting.

Understanding plagiarism this way helps students see what is really at stake when it comes to their assignments. Counterfeiting, after all, is a serious crime, not because it steals money from the government, but because it represents fake money as though it were real. Governments rightly punish counterfeiters (in Canada it can land you in jail for six months) because to allow counterfeiting would be to undermine the entire monetary system. Your ten dollar bill only has value because it is presumed to be genuine. If everyone could just print their own money, it would cease to have value.

This is why university professors — good ones, anyway — are sticklers for plagiarism. Like money, credit in a course only has value if the student really worked to earn it. If everyone were just allowed to hand in anything, anyone could get a degree without doing any work and the degree itself would cease to have any value, and the whole system would fall apart. Medical schools couldn’t trust that potential physicians really understand chemistry. Law schools wouldn’t know whether their applicants could really write analytically. Would you hire a graduate of Cheat-As-Much-As-You-Want University? Would you want to have such a degree?

My point is not the plagiarism should be taken lightly. It’s very serious. My point is that for students to understand why it is serious, it has to be explained in a way that really gets to the heart of the matter. Kilian ends his essay by insisting that plagiarism “matters to us, so it better matter to you.” Fair enough: if students avoid cheating because they fear the consequences, I can live with that. But I would rather students avoided cheating because they realized that, in the long, run, they were hurting themselves, too.

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All your profs are wrong about plagiarism

  1. Excellent points, and I’m glad you used my article as your springboard. Cheers and thanks, Crawford

  2. All true, but I would argue that plagiarism is still stealing.

    There is nothing in the definition of the words “stealing” or “theft” that only applies to situations where the resource is finite or where the item being stolen can be found to have monetary value.

    Stealing is taking something that isn’t yours without permission, period. …and intellectual property is still property. Even if stealing someone’s work is not depriving them of a physical possession or of the money they might have made from it, one is still robbing them of their right to control how their work is used.

  3. You say “Normally when people steal things, they deprive the owner of the things they steal.If you steal my car, I don’t have my car anymore. But every undergraduate senses that if they copy text from Wikipedia and paste it into their essays, no one is deprived of anything.”

    This is not true. You’re depriving me of credit for my ideas and my hard work. “credit” is nearly all we get in an academic world. It is theft.

    Theft of ideas and of writing is still theft because you’re depriving the creator of the credit.

  4. Interesting article with a few good points.

  5. While the counterfeiting analogy is appropriate in a classroom setting, plagiarism isn’t only committed by students. Plagiarism of one academic by another is in fact theft, as this is the act of taking another’s ideas or scholarship – the chief currencies of the Ivory Tower – and presenting it as their own for personal career advantage. This is very much stealing, as it deprives the victim of the advantages that come from their own property – in this case, their knowledge.

  6. If all professors were to be dismissed for plagierism, we’d have a shortage of university professors/teachers/doctors/journalists,etc,etc,….

  7. I think you’re mostly right. But counterfeiting isn’t quite the right analogy, either. In fact, it’s kind of the reverse of counterfeiting. Andrew Potter makes this point in his new book, but it’s easiest to quote his recent blog entry on the topic. (He makes the point in terms of forgery, rather than counterfeiting, but the point still holds I think.)

    “In many ways, plagiarism is just the flip side of forgery: The forger passes off his own work as that of someone else, while plagiarists pass off the work of others as their own.”

  8. Search for a string (in quotes) of even five or six words from one of your texts, and you’ll be amazed at how unique that string turns out to be. Plagiarists should be aware of this fact, and it should make them think twice before attempting outright theft of another’s work. We need to tell our students to avoid plagiarism and cite sources not just because it is ethically and morally wrong, but also because it enhances their work reputation. By simply doing this they could show their readers that they’re well-read, familiar with the rapid changes/developments in their field and aware of divergent viewpoints. It certainly gives student and their work due academic credibility.

  9. Interesting topic. We all do in our day today even in our daily conversation. We talk things, argue for and againt about things stealing others ideas and interpriting theay like our owns original ideas.

    Is it not palgarism to.
    it is day today thing and how you perceive these are important…..

  10. Good point.

    In no time we may need to get copy right clearence before we talk.


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  12. I like this article, by I’d agree with it with qualifications.

    Plagiarism is more akin to 90% counterfeiting, 10% stealing. No proper citations for those numbers; they’re totally arbitrary.

    The slice of it that’s still stealing is because, as the traditional view implies, it does in fact hurt the original creator aswell, insofar as it hurts Robert Keohane because he loses out on the credit he deserves for the passage of his that’s been plagiarised.

    Of course, even the part that is stealing is “stealing-lite”, in same way that pirating music is not full fledged. You’re not depriving them of the object itself, only the gains they would have reaped from it on this particular occasion had it gotten to its target audience legitimately. If, rather than plagiarise, the student would have simply not cited the author, then the author has lost nothing because either way they wouldn’t have gotten recognised for their work.

    However, that is a moot point, as you are quite correct that the overwhelming majority of what makes plagiarism wrong is its affect on those who consume the work, not those who produce it.

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