“Plagiarism” sounds bad, like “plague.” Bad things need cures, require diagnoses, cry out for jeremiads. But like many things—such as “autism,” from which I borrow the term “spectrum”—“plagiarism” is not one simple thing despite the existence of a single term that is used for all its manifestations. Since it is not one simple thing, it is not caused by one single factor and even when it is bad cannot be cured by one single solution.
Plagiarism has a cousin, copyright infringement. In the case of plagiarism what is withheld is not the economic right to receive royalties, but credit. This is a moral good, stemming from specific cultural ideas about the author as individual, and as genius, who creates original, unique material.
Not all forms of plagiarism should be met with outrage or alarm.
“Plagiarism” applies to everything between buying a paper—better considered fraud—and “self-plagiarism” which means an author publishing, more than one time, something s/he wrote her-/himself. The former is an academic crime in which a student attempts to receive academic credit—which is bought both by tuition money and student effort—without applying the effort. The latter is a crime against the rules of the academic guild, which in the United States prohibit repeat publication even of an author’s own work. The larger goals of student learning and professors’ promotion of knowledge are not really addressed in these rules, which might in some ways seem arbitrary.
Another perplexing variant along the spectrum is inadvertent plagiarism, which could also be akin to independent invention. Two or more people might stumble upon the same formulation, as has happened to me. Sometimes influences are floating in the air, and perhaps a musician might believe she has “invented” a melody when actually she heard someone else play it, but has not remembered the initial encounter. Legally this is sometimes regarded as excusable. Intention is the key.
Perhaps the most commonly encountered plagiarism is that which results from students’ imperfect mastery of the conventions of citation that are particular to academic writing, especially in the social sciences and humanities. In this world, any ideas or exact words derived from another source must be credited explicitly, with the (tricky) exception of “common knowledge.” Students often wonder exactly how to give credit, for example when they use material from their course reading (surely, they often think, the professor knows it’s from the course reading, so why should they bother citing it for their audience of one?). They are confused about providing page numbers—page numbers are never given in journalism, are they?—and about using quotation marks or paraphrasing. This kind of plagiarism is usually the result of years of fuzzy teaching and learning and can be corrected only by more education. It is made more difficult by the fact that professors in different fields, and even within the same departments, often give students different rules to follow.
A newly embraced kind of plagiarism is sampling. This kind of artistic creation, including other artists’ work within one’s own and doing something new with it, has existed for centuries. Bach did it; the Impressionists celebrated it. Some contemporary artists, such as Jonathan Lethem, welcome transformation of their ideas. Commercial holders of copyrights, such as the Disney Corporation, prosecute every possible unauthorized use of their images.
The kind of plagiarism that makes administrators, professors, and the public unhappy, though, is a very specific kind of plagiarism. This is the plagiarism that involves a lazy student knowingly taking material—these days usually located on the Internet—written by someone else and presenting it as his own for credit. It might be a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, or the earlier-mentioned entire document. This kind of student knows what she is doing, and does it to deceive the professor, to get a good grade, all the while glossing over doing the work herself.
This kind of plagiarism—let’s call it academic-crime plagiarism—also has many causes, but most include the following: 1) the fact that students do not necessarily care about the learning that is supposed to result from doing their own work, 2) the fact that many perceive higher education (and indeed secondary education as well) as a bottom-line endeavor where the most important outcome is a grade or a credential, 3) the fact that higher education is a multi-faceted enterprise sold as a a) combined cultural rite of passage that transforms children into adults, b) an opportunity to learn about oneself and the world, and c) a prelude to work and success. Students are very busy pursuing the activities marketed as the co-curriculum, relegating classes to a small sliver of their time, as well as working to support the high costs associated with higher education.
The only reasons students would choose the long route instead of the short route to academic accomplishment are that 1) they care about the work, or 2) they are afraid of the consequences if they take the short route.
Most solutions to the academic-crime plagiarism epidemic focus either on increasing fear or making plagiarism a moral issue (going far back to the cultural good of originality as demonstrating the value of an individual creator).
But after researching this issue for several years, I have come to believe that the genuine solution is increasing students’ care about their work, allowing them to place academics at the center of the college experience, where they identify with the guild of their instructors and wish to contribute to the creation of knowledge.
I don’t believe we can do that while higher education is so much an entitlement for the upper-middle class, offering pleasure, fun, and a high salary.
Perhaps we could de-couple the rite of passage, career, and educational facets of higher education, and then we could sort out students’ plagiarism along the plagiarism spectrum. And then we could hope to locate solutions to its multiple faces.