In the wake of the latest plagiarism scandal, there has been more talk to the effect that plagiarism is perhaps not such a big deal after all. People in other fields besides academia are not so uptight about using the work of others, after all, so isn’t plagiarism just another ivory tower formality? Yet another nothing about which academics make so much ado? Is it, in Stanley Fish’s memorable phrase, merely “an insider’s obsession”?
Well, yes and no. Is plagiarism particularly a problem in academics? Yes. Does that make it less important? No. The reason that plagiarism has been and should be taken seriously in universities is not that it is an outrageous impurity or a vicious betrayal of trust, but rather that it undermines the purpose of higher education at a basic level. In this sense, we may call it an ethical, if not a moral violation.
A contrast might make things clearer. When a politician goes in front of a crowd and delivers a speech, she delivers it as her own, using the first person, referring to personal experiences and so on. Indeed, every surface indication is that the politician’s words are her own. Except, of course, that usually they are not. They are probably the words of a team of speech writers who, remain, for the most part, anonymous. So why is it okay for a Premier or Prime Minister or President to take credit for someone else’s work when ordinary students have to sweat it out to credit every single source?
The answer is that the political speech and the student essay have different purposes. In the case of the political oration, the aim is to set out ideas or positions that the candidate or leader is prepared to stand by. It really doesn’t matter exactly who wrote what because what is said is a characterization of positions already assented to by the speechmaker and given as a matter of public record. Even if Governor Firebrand didn’t write her speech to the Twolumps Club, she is still responsible for its content; she can’t turn around and say, well yes, I said that, but someone else wrote it.
A student essay has a different function. The purpose of the essay is to test the student’s mastery of particular skills in a particular discipline. The essay serves as evidence that the student in question is capable of conducting certain kinds of research, synthesizing important information, making a persuasive case, and so on. In a political speech, it is what is actually said that counts; the process is irrelevant. But in a student paper, it is almost the reverse: the particular arguments and conclusions matter little. What counts is whether the student is capable of formulating those arguments in the first place. If the paper is lifted from someone else, it doesn’t demonstrate what it’s supposed to be demonstrating. The armed forces have an annual fitness test; do you think they would allow you to let someone else come in to do your pushups for you? Would they be swayed by the argument that many jobs in life are delegated? No, because the purpose is to test something about you. Students plagiarize largely because they, in fact, can’t do the work genuinely, and so professors must be careful to catch plagiarists if they can. To do otherwise is to certify that graduates are capable of doing things they may well not be. So your doctor misdiagnoses you, your lawyer lands you in jail, and your kids don’t understand grammar because their English teacher is a moron who cheated his way through his degree.
The ethics of taking credit in any field, to be sure, depend heavily on circumstances. A recording artist who pretends to have written a song he didn’t write may be denying a fellow songwriter of well-deserved royalties and may be in serious legal trouble. An executive who takes credit for the collective contributions of her team may be only ungenerous.
A student who copies and pastes his essay from Wikipedia, is trying to get away with something. That’s why we call it cheating.