All your profs are wrong about plagiarism

It’s not stealing, and saying that it is does more harm than good

In the academic world, articles like this one by Crawford Kilian that warn students away from plagiarism are ubiquitous. Some, like Kilian’s are quite well-written. And they’re all wrong.

Not wrong in precise detail, but wrong in the way they conceive the nature of plagiarism. Kilian, for example, reminds us that the etymology of the word links the crime to kidnapping, only now you’re “stealing ideas instead of people” and notes that “scholars don’t like seeing you plagiarize their work, just as retailers resent your shoplifting.” All this is not controversial and people say it all the time. Google “plagiarism is stealing” and you get 13 000 hits.

But plagiarism is not stealing, and saying that it is does more harm than good.

One problem with the “plagiarism is stealing” line is that it rings hollow, and rightly so. Normally when people steal things, they deprive the owner of the things they steal. If you steal my car, I don’t have my car anymore. But every undergraduate senses that if they copy text from Wikipedia and paste it into their essays, no one is deprived of anything. They’re not even depriving anyone of royalties.

Even worse, though, the stealing metaphor situates the bad behavior in the wrong place. Stealing is a crime against the rightful owner, but taking material from a book or a web site and turning it in as your own original work doesn’t harm the original author. Instead, the offence is an offence against your instructor, your course, your university, and academia in general. The problem with taking the work of another and passing it off as your own is not that you’ve taken the work of another, it’s that you’ve passed it off as your own.

Plagiarism, therefore, is not stealing. It’s counterfeiting.

Understanding plagiarism this way helps students see what is really at stake when it comes to their assignments. Counterfeiting, after all, is a serious crime, not because it steals money from the government, but because it represents fake money as though it were real. Governments rightly punish counterfeiters (in Canada it can land you in jail for six months) because to allow counterfeiting would be to undermine the entire monetary system. Your ten dollar bill only has value because it is presumed to be genuine. If everyone could just print their own money, it would cease to have value.

This is why university professors — good ones, anyway — are sticklers for plagiarism. Like money, credit in a course only has value if the student really worked to earn it. If everyone were just allowed to hand in anything, anyone could get a degree without doing any work and the degree itself would cease to have any value, and the whole system would fall apart. Medical schools couldn’t trust that potential physicians really understand chemistry. Law schools wouldn’t know whether their applicants could really write analytically. Would you hire a graduate of Cheat-As-Much-As-You-Want University? Would you want to have such a degree?

My point is not the plagiarism should be taken lightly. It’s very serious. My point is that for students to understand why it is serious, it has to be explained in a way that really gets to the heart of the matter. Kilian ends his essay by insisting that plagiarism “matters to us, so it better matter to you.” Fair enough: if students avoid cheating because they fear the consequences, I can live with that. But I would rather students avoided cheating because they realized that, in the long, run, they were hurting themselves, too.

Don’t miss a second of The Hour Hand |