Should plagiarism be illegal?

Why we shouldn’t be tolerating down essay mills


It was sad but not surprising to see that in Nova Scotia, Canada’s university province , yet another essay mill has sprung up to help students cheat in return for digital cash on the virtual barrel head.

So this week I’ve been feeling like if we ever could rely on a broad sense of personal integrity or honour to help uphold standards of intellectual integrity, we can’t anymore. Fortunately, our society has a way of curtailing bad behaviour when social norms are not enough. We call them laws. So consider this modest proposal:

Plagiarism at universities should be illegal.

After all, plagiarism, when successful, allows students who have not earned credits to be granted them nevertheless and thus to earn degrees to which the students have no right. And yet, those students can, for the rest of their lives reap the benefits of those degrees without any real fear of discovery or punishment (once you’ve graduated, nobody double-checks your papers). But taking money for a job as a teacher or a lawyer or a doctor based on a degree you did not earn seems tantamount to fraud as far as I can tell. And fraud is illegal.

I, of course, am not a lawyer, so I can’t speak to all the legislative and litigational hurdles that would have to be overcome to get this done, but I would welcome input from clever lawyers who agree with me. And, to be sure, making plagiarism a violation of the law would not stop it altogether, but it would have an effect. For one, it would clarify the seriousness of the offence, and make would-be plagiarizers think twice before stealing a paper. Second, the law could standardize procedures across institutions. Third, the legal ramifications would force all professors to give a full account of the proper use of sources. Finally, it would give authorities the power to shut down the essay mills designed for no other purpose but to defraud public institutions.

Look at it this way: if you payed your tuition with money you printed in your parents’ basement, you would be guilty of a crime, not just an academic offense. Why is getting credit for someone else’s work a lesser offence?

(Editor’s note: This post has been updated.)

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Should plagiarism be illegal?

  1. I’d be happy if they just expelled the students who plagiarize and put it on their transcripts.
    As it is, there is hardly any repercussions, so what is there to stop them?

  2. Pingback: Plagiarism at universities should be illegal. – Macleans.ca : Netdreamer

  3. Not sure if it would ever be punishable under criminal law, but maybe there’s a case for civil prosecution? Would universities be willing to sue their own students for abusing the system?

    Mind you, there’s scant profit to be found in suing university students…

  4. The problem with making plagiarism illegal is that, as we all know, there are different levels of plagiarism. A student may put a quote in its proper marks but forget to include the source in his/her bibliography and he/she is now considered a plagiarist at his/her institution. For a first year student, a source may easily be forgotten, what with all this MLA v. APA v. Chicago sourcing that professors emphasize. Should they be charged? If not, why is it that universitites may reprimand a student making this error in the same way that a student who copies an entire paper would, but we wouldn’t criminalize them in our code in the same manner?

  5. Alyshia, I take your point and agree with it in general, but I don’t think the problem you cite invalidates the whole idea. For one thing, laws (from speeding to murder) often recognize that there are different degrees of severity of a crime with differing punishments (and no, plagiarism is not as bad as murder: I just mean that the similarity is only that they both have degrees of severity).

    More practically, the law could expressly exclude the kinds of minor errors that you mention and provide language that would specify that the intent of the law would be to punish those whose plagiarism is serious enough that the degree earned should be considered obtained by fraud.

    Of course, there would have to be a lot of debate over the specifics but that is true for most new laws, I should think, and isn’t that what we pay lawyers and politicians and their staffs to do?

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