Plagiarism, copyrights, and things that go bump in the night

Okay, I admit it: the last phrase in the title to this post isn’t original with me. I stole it from an unknown author, although in my defense, it has by now become such a well-known phrase that it has surely passed into common usage. My crime, then, isn’t stealing someone else’s words; it’s using a cliché and, worse, using a hackneyed cliché  to give the (false) impression that I am actually trying to express an idea.

The cliché notwithstanding, I do have a point, and it’s this: We writers borrow constantly, and “borrow” in this context is a polite word for “steal.” When I bolster a point by saying that “a house divided cannot stand,” I am lifting an idea and actual words out of Abraham Lincoln’s first speech as the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 1858. I am doing it for effect, because the echo is pleasing to my ear and (I hope) to the ears of my readers, who I assume also recognize the phrase and know its author. The words are part of the historical, political, and literary culture that we share. Not only is a footnote not needed, it would spoil the effect (and insult the intelligence of my readers). Et voilá! The perfect crime: one that no one would actually regard as a crime.

All of which takes me to the case of a former student who submitted a term paper that was 99% blocked, copied, and pasted from two U.S. Government websites.  Government publications are not copyrighted, so there was no copyright violation. That, in the opinion of my student, was all that mattered: no laws were broken in the preparation of this term paper.  I gently but firmly tried to instruct her that copyright and plagiariasm are two different things, and it is possible to submit a paper that does not infringe upon a copyrighted publication but still runs afoul of academic standards that condemn plagiarism for what it is: the theft of the words or ideas of another. No actual crime has been committed, except the crime against the standards of The Academy. This is conduct that we do regard as a “crime,” because it violates one of the basic standards of our enterprise: it seeks to obtain credit for ideas and words that are not those of the student, in violation of the standards of The Academy.

And whither “the standards of The Academy”? After reading a piece in the on-line edition of The Atlantic — “Write My Essay, Please” — I have to wonder. The author describes in some detail the phenomenon of essay mills that provide term papers on demand, and not just essay mills but “course mills” that will do all of the student’s assignments all semester long.

Plagiarism? Well, the words and ideas of another author haven’t been appropriated. They’ve been purchased. The sellers — who are overwhelmingly masters- and doctoral-degreed individuals  — consented to the use of their ideas and language by the purchasers. Does consent moot the plagiarism issue? I don’t think so, because plagiarism consists of two wrongs: the appropriation of another author’s ideas or language without attribution and the presentation of the ideas or language of another as one’s own.  Appropriate attribution cures both problems with quotation marks and a footnoted source. Without that attribution, a purchased paper may not run afoul of the appropriation proscription, but it most certainly stumbles over the underserved-credit prohibition.

I assume that we, as teachers in an academic institution, are not terribly conflicted over this. We get it, totally, that paper mills are an abomination. We agree that students should not submit the work of another in order to get a better grade than their own work would have been awarded.

What I do wonder, however, is whether we are aware of the extent of the problem, whether we are as aware of the technology out there for this kind of elemental academic dishonesty, whether we have the technological tools to uncover the dishonesty when it occurs, and whether we have the rigor to use those tools in a systematic way  that protects the integrity of the academic and intellectual enterprise that we oversee.

About Thomas Mayo

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One Response to Plagiarism, copyrights, and things that go bump in the night

  1. Mike Thon says:

    Hi Thomas – I agree that teachers should be using the technology that is available to them help them find plagiarism in their students’ work. I actually wrote a Mac app called Novus Scan that I use to compare my students’ essays to ensure that I don’t receive the same essay from two students – from the same or different classes. It’s not a complete solution, but it helps.
    – Mike

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