Plagiarism . . .


Plagiarism is theft. It is deceit. It is fraud.

It is a despicable sin in the academy that rots the soul of an institution if unaddressed. It is loathsome to serious scholars, a betrayal of the pedagogical oath, and in some cases, it is a crime.

When a student commits plagiarism — even inadvertently — there are a number of consequences the student could face.  When it’s discovered, there are a number of responses you might anticipate from the student when confronted:

1. I didn’t mean to do it. It was inadvertent. The proper citations are in my notes, but when I started editing my paper to meet the word limits restrictions, I accidentally cut out the footnotes where the proper citations were made.

Handling this response would be fairly easy. Make the student show you the unedited manuscript with the original citations. And not tomorrow, which would give him time to recreate a version, but immediately. If the story checks out, give the student one day to resubmit the paper with all proper citations and within the word count limitations set in the assignment. Assure the student that the new paper will receive no more than a “D” but you would not fail him. Let it be a learning experience for a first time offense.

2. This is the first time I’ve made this mistake. I was a little sloppy and tired/overworked and I was rushing to finish the paper and should have made the correct citations.

This one is fairly easy also. If the paper is the entire weight of the grade, the professor has a decision to make.  If the student fails the paper, he fails the course. And if he fails the course, he will have to retake it. That will cost both time and money for the student, and possibly for the institution.  But it’s a serious matter and sloppiness should be rewarded no more than deceit. I’d probably fail the student and force him to retake the course at his own expense. Scholarship monies would not be available for the do-over.

3. Somebody else was editing my paper and they made the mistake.

This is like a heart surgeon blaming the nurse because a patient bled out on the table. Guess who gets the malpractice suit? And “the nurse killed my patient” defense won’t help you before the jury.

4. Somebody else wrote the paper for me.

Expulsion. Period.

Now consider for a moment that plagiarism was “discovered” by the student after he submitted the paper.  On his own, the student approaches the professor to confess the mistake, but it’s too late.  The paper was already graded, the degree has been awarded, and time has passed. What can you do?

Well, you can revoke his degree.  If the degree was with any honors, you could allow the former student to retain the degree, but change the grade for that course to an “F” on his permanent transcript and remove the “honors” distinction. You could assign a completely different research paper and give the former student a semester’s worth of time to write and submit the new paper or the degree would be revoked. There are countless ways an institution can deal with a plagiarism case, even ex post facto. All of them require prudence and an unyielding enforcement of academic integrity standards.

But whatever the recourse, several factors need to be weighed: (1) is there evidence that the plagiarism was accidental or inadvertent; (2) was there any scholarship award or other funds associated with the student’s work; (3) did the student confess the plagiarism or seek to cover it up or shift blame to others (editors, assistants, spouse, etc.); (4) what damage does the plagiarism do to the institution’s reputation; (5) what possible message does this send to other students who have faced the same pressures and constraints of academic research but weren’t either as sloppy or deceitful? And so forth . . .

Now consider for a moment that the same scenario plays out, but this time it’s a professor.  Perhaps even a senior professor.  And consider that this professor may be very prolific, frequently published, and highly sought after on the lecture circuit.

Or what if he were a famous author with a prize-winning book? Like Alex Haley?

Or what if he were a candidate for president who had submitted plagiarized work while in law school for an article in a law review?  Like Joe Biden?

Or what if he was Jayson Blair, or Fahreed Zakaria?

Or what if his stories were cooked outright? His sources invented? His notes and recordings fabricated like in the case of Stephen Glass at The New Republic?

The point is this: EVERYONE claims their plagiarism was accidental or inadvertent, especially when they “discover” it themselves. And all of the people named above either lost their job, withdrew their candidacy, paid a huge settlement, or were sanctioned in some serious and public way.

In each case, however, the original discovery of plagiarism set loose a thousand crowd-sourcing hounds to sniff through every word they had spoken, every article written, every speech made, etc.

And here’s the rub: If someone has been sloppy once or twice, they’ve probably been sloppy more than that.  There are very few, if any, plagiarists who got sloppy only once.  There are very few thieves with a single theft. And there’s a verse in the Bible that is especially true of plagiarism in the Internet age. Moses said it like this to the children of Israel: “Be sure your sin will find you out.”

Which is why you have to be very careful if you hire a plagiarist to teach on your faculty. A little leaven, and all . . .

It’s like putting an adulterer back in the pulpit soon after his adultery was confessed. Or a lawyer back in the court room soon after his license was reinstated. Or an unrepentant misogynist in an ethics class shortly after his treatment of women was exposed.

More to come . . .