On Plagiarism, Cheating, and Other Academic Sins


S: Can you give us some background thoughts about the circumstances surrounding recent reports of cheating and plagiarism in the Academy?

H: Strict ideas about intellectual property are relatively new; they are certainly not ones that most people would come up with on their own.  Shakespeare freely borrowed from others and did not think about ‘crediting them’. Indeed the whole idea of ‘quotation’ presupposes both a written language and a reason why someone should be acknowledged and, on occasion, compensated for the use of his/her words or ideas.

Once formal science arose a few centuries ago, the notion of credit for earlier work became part of the sinews of scientific practice. It soon spread to academic work more broadly;  whether a person is a physicist or a philosopher, he expects to be credited when his  ideas are used by others. And if there is extensive quotation or borrowing, there may well be a formal permissions procedure and at times a fee.  By the same token. once the possibility arose of making significant profits for printing multiple copies of work or for sharing a  broadcast or film with a large audiences, again the idea of financial compensation for the use of creative work became commonplace.   Indeed, countries with strict intellectual property laws routinely clash with those who have looser arrangements or those which engage in frank pirating.

There is no reason for young people to understand these principles and practices, though they need no instruction in understand that certain items (clothing, toys, bicycles, Ipads) are theirs and should not be taken without permission and possiblyl compensation.  Young people do need instruction in the legitimate reasons for respecting the source of intellectual property, for crediting sources, and, if they want to use larger segments in a public space, of following the normal procedures for permission.

There are a number of contemporary practices that should be distinguished from one another, though they are often squished (technical word !) together. Scholar plagiarize when they borrow significant amount of text without permission or make only tiny inconsequential changes to the original text.   Scientists may report data that they pretend to have  obtained but which they have actually made up out of whole cloth;  or they can knowingly distort the data that have been collected, typically to make a stronger case for the argument that they propounding. Within the scholarly academy, these ‘crimes’ are serious and the perpetrators are typically (though not always) punished.  For example, Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser was forced to resign when extensive cases of data creation and/or manipulation were discovered. By the same token Amherst College anthropologist Carleen Basler was forced to resign when it was demonstrated that she had borrowed extensively without attribution from the writings of others.

Other publicized cases have resulted in few penalties except for unfavorable publicity.  Harvard Law Professors Lawrence Tribe and Charles Ogletree have admitted that they or their assistants have quoted from others without acknowledgement;  commentators like Fareed Zakaria, and historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin have quoted from published writings without proper citation.  Whether these misdeeds were less egregious, or whether these individuals were protected by their formidable reputations, remains a subject for debate.

It is also worth noting that, in much of the current world, it is accepted practice for people to sign their name to things that they have not written.  When there is an OP ED in the paper by a well known politician, only a naïve reader thinks that the politician wrote the piece herself; indeed she may not even have read it. By the same token, rarely does a celebrity pen her own autobiography; the ghost writer is fortunate if she receives any credit at all.  So there is hardly a high standard for ‘earned authorship’ in the wider world. When students are cited or punished for plagiarism, they often point to these examples  in an effort to exonerate themselves.

S: Is plagiarism becoming more accepted in the age of the Internet?

H: Alan Greenspan once said that people have always been greedy but there have never been so  many ways to be greedy.  Ever since there was formal teaching with examinations, individuals have cheated.  And while we know that cheating is very common today at all levels, we cannot ascertain for sure that the actual incidence of cheating has gone up;  we do know that easy access to information, if not knowledge, coupled with the simplicity of ‘cutting’ and ‘pasting’ makes it very easy to plagiarize.

I don’t think that plagiarism is more acceptable to the scholarly community but it is certainly not something that bothers students very much.  Indeed I’ve argued that it is adaptive to  cheat/plagiarize;  1) if you do  so,  you are likely not to be discovered;  2) If you are discovered, you may well not be punished.  Some teachers do not think that plagiarism is so bad, or they think that it is only the student him/herself that is being hurt. But many more teachers don’t want the hassle of pursuing a case of plagiarizing (or any other form of cheating) through numerous administrative levels; even less do teachers want to be threatened by parents or students with law suits or even physical harm.  So at many places, there is in effect a kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

For the reasons stated, I don’t think that most institutions are motivated to take an aggressive stance against plagiarism. At a few places, like Amherst or Stanford,  or the service academies, the exalted reputation of the place puts a certain amount of pressure on administrators to sanction those who have committed academic misdeeds. But I suspect that most  institutions would love to sweep offenses under the rug.

S: Are academic institutions doing enough to punish and prevent plagiarism?

H: As to whether institutions are doing enough to discourage plagiarism, I would say that we have the making of a perfect storm: l) the ease of plagiarism; 2) the lack of knowledge of why one should NOT plagiarize on the part of many students, though probably very few faculty;  3) the hassle of enforcing surveillance and penalties.

This situation is very worrisome.  Earning credit for what one has done oneself, and crediting those on whose shoulders one has stood, are at the very center of the scholarly enterprise.   Scholarly institutions are respected for living up to these standards.  Should they become complacent, they will deservedly lose the respect that they have—and, perhaps more motivating to their leaders, their tax- free status could be threatened.  I personally favor quite ambitious and extensive efforts on the part of educational institutions to explain why plagiarism and other forms of cheating are wrong; why they undercut the central assumptions  of scholarship across the disciplinary landscape;  what it means to be a member of a community where an honor code is truly observed.  And then, once this ‘education has taken place’ there should be clear penalties, enforced and, insofar as possible, made public.  I realize that in expressing these views, I am taking a minority position and making university lawyers very nervous!

S: Is the emphasis on grades over learning to blame for today’s plagiarism?

H: The accent on grades may contribute to the current perfect storm.  Even when it is not the case, many students believe that their future life prospects depend on achieving certain grades.  Our research (Making Good, How Young People Cope With Moral Dilemmas at Work Fischman et al,  Harvard University Press) documents that many of our most impressive young people believe that their peers are cutting corners and that they should be excused for doing the same.

It is probably not the case that most students over time have loved learning for its own sake.  (We teachers wish  it were the case!)  Yet the pressures to achieve quickly and to secure a job have undercut some of the benefits of liberal arts education, where students once sampled from a range of courses in many fields and had the time to discuss controversial ideas with peers and teachers.  In our own work with adolescents we have brought students and parents together to discuss complex ethical issues.  A parent will say “Why did you cheat? You know you are not supposed to do that.”  The student will respond “When I brought home a paper with a B grade, you said ‘I don’t want to see any more Bs’”  Only when these mixed messages are brought into contact do some of the reasons for cheating become blatant; and then one can consider what it takes for a family—and, indeed, a whole community– to operate on a different basis.

In light of these findings, our research group has created a GoodWork Toolkit in which we encourage students as well as their elders to tackle moral and ethical issues like cheating.   The website is goodworktoolkit.org   Working with the New Media Literacies group at MIT, we have also created a digital curriculum which addresses directly the question of intellectual property in cyberspace.  You can read about the curriculum at http://www.goodworkproject.org/practice/our-space/


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