Don't Blame the Internet for Plagiarism

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Great innovations inevitably produce unexpected consequences, which may be good, bad, mixed, or indifferent. The telephone gave us taping, which allows us to get messages while away from a phone, and tapping, which allows others to hear our private conversations. For all its glorious contributions to civilization, the printing press also enabled the spread of plagiarism, the claiming of another's creation as one's own.

The Internet, today's wonderful technological advance, has vastly expanded the pestilence of plagiarism, virtually inviting every unscrupulous, lazy, naive, dull-witted, or simply desperate student with access to a computer and a modem, from middle school through graduate school, to plagiarize. Of course, plagiarism doesn't need new technology to attract practitioners, but it is easier to download papers than to steal from old-fashioned sources like Cliffs and Monarch Notes or the encyclopedia.

The Internet offers writing on all sorts of subjects for nominal fees, often even for nothing, the sponsor selling advertising space on his Web site. A search can summon up more than 50 sources for papers that students can copy and present as their own, according to a New York Times report. Of course, like any library, the Internet also makes available a vast supply of materials from books, magazines, newspapers, government reports, and reference sources that the most modestly enterprising student can copy, adapt, and offer as his own.

Education officials throughout the country are agitating for legislation to limit this Internet scourge, which many regard as equal only to the plague of pornography. Sixteen states have already passed statutes against computer-aided plagiarism, according to The Washington Post.

Yet teachers and officials themselves, not students, may be most responsible for the growth of plagiarism in schools and on campuses, by not anticipating and preparing for it, not recognizing it, or excusing it when they do uncover it.

Consider the case of one new assistant professor, reported by him first in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He found two plagiarized "research" papers in his lecture class of 180 and announced he would allow the offenders to rewrite them if they confessed. Thirteen plagiarizers revealed themselves--but not the two he had picked out.

We must ask: How did this teacher's superiors prepare him to teach the course? Did anyone ever suggest that he not assign "research" topics that were likely to have been covered many times before? How come he found only two fraudulent papers out of 15? Clearly, he did not understand his own possible contribution to the plagiarism.

More disturbing questions arise when teachers at every level discount plagiarism in general. In a disquieting essay in The American Scholar, Peter Shaw described "a kind of hysterical revolt [in some academic circles] against the tyranny of originality." He cited one professor who expressed himself as satisfied "that modern relativism has so far freed us from the 'rigid certainties of Victorian moralism' as to make it no longer necessary to be terribly concerned about plagiarism."

I have had colleagues defend clear instances of plagiarism by arguing that the student simply didn't understand how to use footnotes or quotation marks. Teachers and students have learned to repeat the common excuse offered to defend plagiarism in newspapers and magazines, that the culprit got confused by his voluminous notes. One teacher accepted a student's explanation that he had unconsciously "memorized" extended passages while doing his research.

The American Historical Association, after a long investigation, reported that one professor, in a number of his works, depended too heavily, "even with attribution, on the structure, distinctive language, and rhetorical strategies of other scholars and sources." It concluded, however, that it could find "no evidence" that he "committed plagiarism as it is conventionally understood."

More sophisticated and complicated defenses point out that Shakespeare used "sources" for his plays, that John Milton depended on biblical precedents for his major works, that movies are regularly made from plays and novels, or that we can find nothing original under the sun. But sources, analogues, parallels, adaptations do not constitute theft of identically expressed works. No one would charge that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's musical "My Fair Lady" is anything other than a brilliantly imagined and acknowledged rendition of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion."

Very few academic veterans, from the lowest to the most advanced levels, fail to recognize and be offended by plain plagiarism, even though, as the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica put it: "The idea of plagiarism as a wrong is comparatively modern, and has grown up with the increasing sense of property in works of the intellect." Most teachers and administrators agree that those who misrepresent ownership of any property commit an illegal act. At many colleges, plagiarism results in expulsion.

What drives the plagiarist, young or mature, is a mix of incompetence, greed, and arrogance. He believes that his audience will not recognize the difference between his copy and someone else's original. At best, he will think that it makes no difference to anyone to plagiarize. Too many students quickly discover that junior, indifferent, or incompetent teachers don't pay all that much attention to their pedagogical responsibilities, either to warn students against plagiarism by defining it precisely or to recognize it when it shows up.

All teachers can do much to prevent plagiarism by keeping their courses fresh and by getting to know their students' capacity for real understanding, analysis, and expression, even in large classes, and, perhaps most of all, by knowing their field well.

Faculty ignorance too often spurs students to violate rules they normally respect. One brilliant, capable, and honest student I know engaged in a kind of reverse or faux plagiarism when her instructor rejected her own original reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and insisted she report her "sources." To satisfy him, she simply made up a critic, a journal, and the pages from which she quoted and paraphrased him.

It is simple enough, if painstaking, to base student evaluations on performance that cannot readily be faked. One purveyor of Internet plagiarism acknowledged: "Many of these papers are garbage, actually," that is, work that no competent teacher should accept or fail to recognize as garbage. Any teacher who knows and keeps up with his field should be able to distinguish between a student's unique response to her reading and the work of bona fide, established scholars and critics.

Ideally, we prize individual thought and expression in every classroom. They are preparatory to achievement at every higher level and, of course, in the world at large. Blaming a new technology for plagiarism comes close to countenancing one's own failure to recognize and reward originality. To allow, overlook, misunderstand, misdefine, excuse, or fail to take steps to prevent plagiarism in any manner or context is to mock education itself.

Morris Freedman is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland at College Park. His writing has appeared in a range of newspapers and journals, including The Chronicle of Higher Education and The American Scholar.

Vol. 18, Issue 14, Pages 36, 40

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Don't Blame the Internet for Plagiarism
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