Richardson's Rules of Order, Part VIII: Plagiarism: Who Cares?

Heather Cox Richardson

This is not a discussion of what plagiarism is. When you entered your college or university, you most likely signed a document saying you understood plagiarism. If you don’t, there are places listed on the syllabus, the internet, and so on, to explain it. You can also ask us. Make sure you know. The punishments for plagiarism are severe.

This is a brief document about why professors care so much about plagiarism. Students sometimes see it simply as “copying,” a quick way to get through an assignment, and seem surprised that professors get so hot under the collar about it. Here’s why we do.

Ideas and words are how we make our living. You would not steal the plans for a new product from a technology company, or even a new car from a dealership. Stealing our words or ideas is no different than stealing a new product, and it’s much worse than stealing a car, which is simply an object. Our ideas, expressed in words, are the products of our hard work (and if you don’t think research and writing isn’t hard work, you try to write a 350-page book in the spare time that work and life allows you!), and also of our life experiences. Our minds and hearts both are in them, and they are the product we contribute to the world. To have someone steal and claim authorship of them is a profound injury, attacking both an individual author and the entire enterprise to which we’ve devoted our lives.

When you entered college, you indicated that you wanted to take part in the enterprise of scholarship. You are here to learn and to contribute your own ideas and skills to human knowledge. If you cheat, you are undermining that endeavor. You can think of it, perhaps, as a team sport. Everyone on a baseball team, for example, has different skill levels and different perspectives, but the players, coaches, and support staff all share the same goal of creating a successful team and all contribute to it in their own way. If someone is cheating, though, s/he is changing the rules of play and ruining the sport for everyone. In sports, cheating is not tolerated, and it isn’t in academia, either.

Aside from the larger implications of plagiarism, professors find it insulting on two levels. First of all, a student who engages in it is essentially saying: “Even though you’ve spent years and years studying this material in all its complexity, you’re still so stupid that you won’t notice if I, who have spent only half a semester on this topic, copy directly from Wikipedia or recycle someone else’s paper. Even if you should happen to notice, you’re too dumb to use the internet the same way I do, or to recognize an old paper, so you’ll never catch me.” Think about it. Would you play a tape of Eric Clapton to Derek Trucks and try to pass the guitar work off as your own? And if you did, how do you think Trucks would respond?

Plagiarism also insults our skills as teachers. The way a student talks, thinks, and writes is unique. We notice when a poor writer suddenly writes at a professional level, or when a student who has not been able to make sense of the material suddenly writes an A+ exam. Even worse, in some ways, are obvious instances of plagiarism like cut-and-pasted articles from the internet that are printed in different fonts. Once again, this shrieks that the student believes the teacher to be an absolute fool.

Finally, we hate plagiarism because resolving it steals large blocks of time from our good students and hands it to bad ones. It takes a good deal of time and mental energy to deal with a plagiarism case, time that could be going to writing letters of recommendation, editing chapters for thesis students, or helping an enthusiastic “C” student learn how to be an “A” student. Most of us are in this profession to teach, and we are quite willing to give our time, energy, and expertise to any student trying to learn. But to throw time away on someone who cares so little about a class that s/he is actually willing to cheat drives us crazy. That time calculation should matter to students as well as teachers. Plagiarism cases and the need for letters of recommendation often coincide at the end of a semester, and the strict timelines for pursuing plagiarism cases mean that plagiarism comes first. So, yes, it is possible that your recommender missed the deadline for your letter of recommendation because s/he was busy with a plagiarism case.

In my experience, most plagiarism comes either from panic or laziness. If you’re panicked, deal with it not by compounding the problem, but by approaching your teacher honestly, admitting you can’t complete the work by the assigned deadline, and asking to brainstorm about options. Occasionally, yes, you will get hammered by an unsympathetic professor who berates you and says there’s nothing s/he can do to help. But this is unusual. If you’ve been a decent student in the class, the chances are good s/he will work with you to get you through the assignment. And if the professor is unsympathetic, wouldn’t you rather deal with that reaction BEFORE s/he’s caught you for plagiarism? Plagiarism is unlikely to make him or her more reasonable to deal with, and it’s unlikely anyone else will help you out, either, once you have plagiarized. You will be in much worse trouble than you were when you panicked in the first place.

Laziness is also a poor excuse. Being too lazy to do the basic work for a class indicates that you think the class is a waste of time, which brings me back to the issue of appropriate behavior in a college classroom. You don’t have to care about the class, but don’t insult those who do. And if it’s such a waste of your time, why spend your not-insignificant college tuition on it? Take something else you DO like.