Plagiarism is wrong because 'I' say so

Of course students should be punished but it isn't uniquely offensive

My first reaction to the minor plagiarism scandal at King’s was to denounce the university for being soft, flabby, and altogether unconcerned with academic standards. How could the harshest punishment be a mere fail of a single assignment? Surely the university can no longer defend not subscribing to plagiarism detection software because it has a “bond of trust” with its students.

Don’t they realize that cheaters are narcissistic and quite possibly psychopathic? Have they not read that more than half of university students already admit to plagiarizing? Why would a respectable institution like King’s not want to draw a line instead of administering a series of wrist taps? Can’t they see their degrees are now worthless and no one will ever hire their graduates?

Then I had a cup of tea.

Turns out my instincts had less to do with any objective understanding of the case than with the fact that I only recently left university where I had spent the better part of a decade. Those were years where I had no choice but to abide by the rules of the academy, from meeting deadlines to learning obscure citation styles, to leaving any soapbox I might be standing on at the door.

And rules against plagiarism are just that, rules. They might be particularly important rules, and no doubt rules that should be enforced, but when isolated, it is hard to see what exactly it is about plagiarism that makes it uniquely offensive.

The typical explanation is that plagiarism involves “intellectual theft” but when applied to students, as opposed to, say, artists, the analogy falls apart. Professors who copy another’s work when submitting a paper to a journal, may be depriving another of prestige, respect, or research funding. There is a real identifiable harm to another individual.

Students who plagiarize in most cases aren’t depriving anyone of anything, except maybe the self-respect of an embarrassed professor who might have been fooled into giving a student an undeserved grade.

Todd’s counterfeiting analogy is sharper. The value of money is only reliable so long as it is real money. The same goes for grades. Grades are based on the assessment of a student’s performance, and if students don’t do the work they cannot be properly assessed. But the same might be said for enforcing deadlines, using accepted research methods, being a stickler for spelling and grammar, and other demands aimed at instilling in students the importance of academic rigour.

We are still left with the question of what makes plagiarism particularly wrong. If students cannot be said to be stealing, and if ensuring students are properly assessed applies to a range of academic criteria, is there anything that makes plagiarism special?

I think Stanley Fish had the right idea when he wrote “Plagiarism Is Not a Big Moral Deal.” Whether or not a work is authentic matters to those initiated in a particular setting. It is a guild concept intended to regulate and enforce how scholars, or journalists for that matter, should conduct themselves and how their accomplishments are to be measured. Handing in original work matters because professors say it should.

In other contexts, passing off someone else’s work as your own does not matter, and might actually be encouraged. When preparing reports for their ministers, government bureaucrats typically help themselves freely to the work of their colleagues without giving credit. No one talks about plagiarism scandals in the federal bureaucracy, unless the prime minister is implicated.

With that in mind, it is unsurprising that students, particularly first-year students as in the King’s case, plagiarize. Some of them might have been motivated by laziness or self-entitlement and there is something to that explanation. More likely many are still just learning the rules.

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