Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, August 2, 2010

plagiarists' excuses

This is a reasonably good story about plagiarism, covering the usual theories about How Social Media Are Changing Our Kids, but offering some rebuttals as well. But there’s one point that always emerges in stories on this topic that bug me a little, i.e.:

At Rhode Island College, a freshman copied and pasted from a Web site’s frequently asked questions page about homelessness — and did not think he needed to credit a source in his assignment because the page did not include author information. . . .

And at the University of Maryland, a student reprimanded for copying from Wikipedia in a paper on the Great Depression said he thought its entries — unsigned and collectively written — did not need to be credited since they counted, essentially, as common knowledge.

Professors used to deal with plagiarism by admonishing students to give credit to others and to follow the style guide for citations, and pretty much left it at that.

But these cases — typical ones, according to writing tutors and officials responsible for discipline at the three schools who described the plagiarism — suggest that many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed.

Hasn't anyone here ever heard of playing dumb? Anyone can say “I didn't know it was wrong” — but are they really as ignorant as they claim? Haven't people been pleading innocence-through-ignorance as long as there have been rules or laws? Let’s have a bit of skepticism here, people. Not all students are as clueless as they claim when backed into a corner.


  • Perhaps all they know is that other people have told them it is wrong—people whose opinions they don't respect and authority they don't acknowledge. Saying "I didn't know it was wrong" is just the quickest method of ending a conversation they know isn't going anywhere.

  • This is slightly off-topic, but I ran across a link to your review of Kahlil Gibran's collected works in an article about vampires this morning at First Things. The entire review was only available to subscribers, but somehow I was able to read it in its entirety in your new collection of essays on Google Books. You delivered to Mr. Gibran's writings a much-deserved justice. Thank you!

  • Michael Straight said...

    On an individual basis, there is some duty to give a person the benefit of the doubt -- don't attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance, etc. And it shouldn't really make much difference when handing out grades -- if the student is unable to produce proper scholarship because of laziness or ignorance, either way they've failed to demonstrate that they've learned what they need to learn.

    But when trying to get a handle on what's going on with students, asking why plagiarism happens, and making pronouncements like "many students simply do not grasp..." then yes, you have to be a lot more skeptical about what students say and do a lot more work than just taking a few anecdotes at face value.

  • Michael Straight said...

    I'd also be interested in your opinion of that Stanley Fish article on plagiarism.

    I think he's right, but misleading. In the real world, plagiarism is morally wrong.

    A better analogy than Golf would be Math. It's not morally wrong in the abstract to "break the rules of math" by making errors in your calculations. But you haven't done the math right. And if you're a student or an engineer you probably have a moral duty to get it right.

    You can argue that the academy's standards of scholarship should be different, that originality is not a moral absolute, but if you're a humanities student or scholar, committing plagiarism amounts to a fraudulent claim to have done work you haven't actually done.

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