5.0810 Rs: Still More on Plagiarism (3/250)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Thu, 2 Apr 1992 20:28:59 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 5, No. 0810. Thursday, 2 Apr 1992.

(1) Date: Thu, 2 Apr 92 00:10 CDT (146 lines)
Subject: Sorting Out Plagiarism

(2) Date: Thu, 2 Apr 92 02:37:20 EST (75 lines)
From: Bernard.van't.Hul@um.cc.umich.edu
Subject: 5.0800 Rs: Plagiarism

(3) Date: Thu, 2 Apr 1992 16:12:03 +0300 (EET-DST) (29 lines)
Subject: RE: 5.0806 Rs: More on Plagiarism

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Thu, 2 Apr 92 00:10 CDT
Subject: Sorting Out Plagiarism

The plagiarism discussion seems to me to be more opaque than
necessary, as a result of a lot of different issues being jumbled
together. Let me try to sort some of these out, and see if this
throws more light on the situation.

Plagiarism basically consists in representing another's
words as one's own. As such it is a kind of implicit lying: if
I don't cite another source, I'm saying the words are my own.
One could hold that all lies are is wrong, quite independently of
the use to which they are put. But for most of us, the question
of what sanctions should be applied depends upon the intended or
actual _effect_ of the lie in question.

These effects can vary widely in the case of ordinary lies.
Some "white lies" are relatively innocuous ("That was a very
interesting paper!", "You've lost weight!"); lies in the service
of a greater good may even be praiseworthy (lies to the Gestapo).
But if you lie to gain an advantage over other job applicants or
to damage a rival, some sanctions seem called for, and perjury
statutes provide for legal sanctions for lies in court. _Any_
lie seems to damage the community at least slightly by weakening
trust in another's word, though this could be outweighed by other
factors (as in the Gestapo case).

Plagiarism, I think, can be handled in a similar fashion.
If I fail to cite the source of my bon mot in a lecture or at a
dinner, I may gain a reputation for wit I don't deserve, but it's
not a very serious offense. I might even drop a few Faulkner
lines without attribution just to see if an alleged expert picks
them up.

When a student submits someone else's work as his own, what
is the intended, and what is the actual effect of this "lie"?
The intended effect is, pretty clearly, to gain credit for a
mastery of the subject he does not in fact possess. It's a
misrepresentation of one's competence, a kind of fraud, like
turning back a used car's odometer. But how serious is it? It
may not be serious at all: it's a one-time event, the student
gets an A instead of a B or C, but the difference makes little
difference (no scholarship, grad school admission or job is

But it could be more serious. A single fraudulent grade
could in principle make the difference; a series of them
certainly could. In this case some other, presumably honest
student who would otherwise have gotten the scholarship,
admission or job has been wronged. And the higher the level, the
greater the wrong, from the plagiarized intro-course essay to the
term paper to a masters and doctoral dissertation. The
misrepresentation gets you a place on the bench, and somewhere
down at the end, in the dark, somebody falls off.

Another wrong that's seldom noted in cases like this is the
wrong to those served by the people who obtained their position
through the fraud. The professor, doctor or engineer who faked
his way through school presumably serves his students, patients
and clients less well than one whose credentials were gained
honestly. The connection between a case or two of plagiarism and
a later error from incompetence may be tenuous, but I'd like to
think that my blood is being tested, my plane flown and my nuke
inspected by people who did their exams themselves.

Gaining an unearned advantage may be the intended effect of
plagiarism, but it is not the only one: there is a collateral
effect as well. Behind the competence being faked there is,
usually, some reality, and when someone who got an A in a subject
turns out to know little about it, the credibility of the teacher
and institution certifying the student's A-level competence in
the subject suffers at all levels. The students who did their
own work become discouraged or cynical. The deceived grad school
or employer stop trusting the teacher's and institution's grades,
to the detriment of all the other students. Interestingly (this
is the basis of Kant's analysis), this effect is _not_ intended:
the plagiarist wants his fraudulent grade to be accepted as
genuine, and so wants to be the only plagiarist in town.

But aren't I making a mountain out of a molehill? Some kid
turns in an obscure article as his term paper, and civilization
as we know it collapses. After all, Harvard survived Teddy
Kennedy's academic dishonesty, and BU will survive King's. I
think this objection turns on a mistake similar to what's known
as the Sorites Paradox, in that it infers from the fact that
there's no _discernable_ effect of a given case of plagiarism
that there's no effect at all. There's an effect all right, one
that's cumulative and progressive: if you forgive one intro
student for plagiarizing an essay, how can you fail to forgive
the second, third, and fourth? Can you allow it in intro, but
not in advanced courses? Grad courses? Dissertations?

By this I don't mean that any freshman who copies from his
neighbor should be broken on the Wheel. Prof. Baron indicates
that student plagiarists are expelled at his school; in the
places I've taught, even ones with strict honor codes, this is
rare except in flagrant cases. More often, the student is simply
failed in the course (often only on the test). This seems
reasonable to me: anybody, especially a freshman, can get in a
time bind and make a mistake. But a regular pattern of academic
dishonesty undermines the trust between student and teacher, and
the good faith and credit of the institution; such students
should make way for those who take credit only where credit is

The effect of the plagiarism in the other cases Prof. Baron
mentions varies widely. A number of these cases are also
academic, and the same considerations apply: if there were no
sanctions, there should have been (that is, the injustice is not
that the students received sanctions, but that the professors did
not). In the King case, his non-academic achievements far
overshadow his academic ones; retroactively pulling his PhD
wouldn't mean he didn't march on Selma.

The effect of plagiarism by working novelists, it seems to
me, is different. There is no institutional certifying authority
whose credibility is compromised by the plagiarism. The main
advantage gained is financial (and to some extent reputation),
and the courts take care of that. The public may feel cheated a
bit, but if Dashiell Hammitt actually wrote Raymond Chandler's
early novels, I still had a good read; it's Hammitt's heirs
who've really been cheated. The case of Sen. Biden seems to be
relatively innocuous, sort of like my bon mot: he's taking
credit for someone else's thoughts, all right, but not much turns
on it.

To summarize: plagiarism, it seems to me, is a kind of
lying, the seriousness of which depends on the use to which it is
put. Since it's used in the academy to produce false certifica-
tion of competence in particular fields, and since the academy's
credibility depends upon the acceptance of its certification,
sanctions for plagiarism are entirely appropriate, and if
professors are exempted, they shouldn't be. The uses of
plagiarism outside the academy are different, and it's reasonable
that the sanctions, if any, should be different as well.

Let me end with an anecdote. I once taught at a school with
an honor code enforced entirely by the students: a professor
could accuse a student of plagiarism (or another form of academic
dishonesty), but guilt and punishment were decided by a student
committee. The punishments the students meted out to their own
were much harsher than even the most hard-nosed professor would
have suggested. They recognized that the integrity of their own
achievement's certification was threatened by another student's
plagiarism, and they acted accordingly.
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------84----
Date: Thu, 2 Apr 92 02:37:20 EST
From: Bernard.van't.Hul@um.cc.umich.edu
Subject: 5.0800 Rs: Plagiarism (5/154)

D. M. Schap says (Vol. 5, No. 0806. Wednesday, 1 Apr 1992):
"The fact that there are dubious cases around the edges of a
crime does not cast doubt on the criminal nature of the
crime itself."
Definition, enforcment, and adjudication of criminal law
keep emerging as self-explanatory analogue of teacherly
policy on the plagiarism of student writers. Let's pick a
crime and agree: Murder "itself" is heinous. What keeps
court dockets full is that best-founded allegations launch
only "dubious cases," never attain to the thing itself.
Here on HUMANIST, meanwhile, I have not "seen" what Schap is
dismayed to have seen -- "academics uncertain as to whether
plagiarism by students should be condoned."

Like Anne Erlebach (Vol. 5, No. 0806. Wednesday, 1 Apr
1992), I am *against* plagiarism (along with all other
crimes and misdemeanors); nor would I think to "tell [her]
that professors don't know when they're plagiarizing."

In trying to help my students to clarity on plagiarism, my
challenge is to imagine precisely WHAT it is that writers
know and do in what Erlebach calls their "knowing use of
others' ideas and words as if they were [their] own." Of
course it does NOT impugn Erlebach's own honesty to observe
that those ones of her words are not indisputably her very
own, or that her very idea has a familiar ring too.

For teachers who know both that and how honesty in writing
relates to honesty in meditating or in thinking or in
keeping one's hand out of an unattended cookie jar or in
(Schaps') non-bouncing of checks, the challenge is to
explain the relationship to students, I think.

One's glad sense of students' striving for honesty is not
diminished by respect for this formidable problem: In most
uses of language, memory and invention are all of a piece;
"present texts" are not conceivably INdependent of "prior"

I wonder: Whether my own "plagiarism policy" for students
would begin with the Eighth Commandment (attributed) or with
Erlebach's "knowing-use of words and ideas not one's own"
(attributed), should I muddy the students' waters by
quoting, also, the fourteenth verse of Psalm 19 ("Let the
words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be
acceptable in thy sight, O Lord....")?

But where, then, is the exegetical scholar who will gloss
the psalmist's enigmatic utterance so as to make clear for
students that it constitutes rather a command than a
petition -- and is thus APPLICABLE to students' morals as
banking laws, say, to the morals of writers of checks)?

To read the psalmist's utterance AS a petition -- it would
tempt students to think of a writer's honesty as a state of
grace (cf. American English "good luck" or "good genes") --
impervious by any name to teacherly policies, though fostered,
as one hopes, by teacherly candor and example.

In a long Middle-English poem attributed to one Wm.
Langland, its narrator is troubled in heart to ponder the
eternal damnation of the children of the ancient heathen
who, having pre-dated the Christian gospel, were without the
narrator's own assurance of salvation. I am all untroubled
in heart to ponder the plagiarism of that poet, or of his
greater contemporary Chaucer, or of their uncountable
predecessors -- who flourished without the concept of "words
and ideas" as PROPERTY; whose "knowing use of others' ideas
and words as if they were [their] own" was the *modus
scribendi* that yielded such moral-seeming glories as the
Canterbury Tales and then some.
(3) --------------------------------------------------------------36----
Date: Thu, 2 Apr 1992 16:12:03 +0300 (EET-DST)
Subject: RE: 5.0806 Rs: More on Plagiarism (3/161)

David Schaps' reminiscences of his Arab and Georgian students who
both memorized and reproduced the same essay reminds me of a high-
school experience, when I reproduced from memory, in an exam, a
page or so of the textbook almost exactly word for word. I had not
in fact intended to learn the textbook word for word, I simply
had at that time a somewhat more photographic memory than I have
now, and carefully reading a text twice (as one did before exams)
was enough to fix it in memory at least for the next few days.
The resulting casual but somewhat suspicious questions I received
from the teacher were enough to fix the experience (if not, alas,
the text) in my memory for the next 30 years...

But is reproducing a text in an exam a case of possible plagiarism,
or rather of possible cheating in exams? Hm -- now I come to think
of it, I can't define the difference between those two, though I
intuitively feel they aren't really the same thing.

Incidentally, in case anyone is interested in this sort of thing,
I had no idea that the answer I wrote in the exam contained a
near-verbatim reproduction of a page from the textbook, i.e. I
did not in fact *know* that I had memorized the book. Of course
a certain percentage of plagiarism is similarly "unconscious"
rather than intended.

Judy Koren, Haifa, Israel.