Misconceptions about Academic Dishonesty
There are three things I hear repeated regularly in discussions about plagiarism, all of which I think are wrong.
- Students don't know what plagiarism is and so inadvertently cheat
- International students come from cultures where plagiarism is allowed and so make mistakes in American and Canadian universities that are really not there fault. Cheating, I have been told, is part of "their culture."
- Plagiarism is not plagiarism, but inspiration. Artists have always played off each other and if we make them accountable to, say, the law of copyright, it will harm the creative process.
- Plagiarism (like any offence) needs to be intentional. There is a category of legal offences called "negligence" whereby one becomes guilty if one does not take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of other people and, one could argue that ensuring one does not cheat might fall into this category but, by and large, offences require an action: an intent to deceive.
- Plagiarism is often, however, "reverse onus": that is, faculty (or, in the case of Perry's song, it seems, lawyers) do not have to prove intent, which is amazingly difficult to prove. Instead, they have to prove commission. The reality of commission -- that I can find instances of, say, copying -- is taken to prove intent.
- A grade sanction, whereby the student loses points or even fails the course
- A requirement to take some sort of workshop on proper citation
- A student might be placed on probation (indicating that if they were caught again a suspension can follow)
- Some sort of note is often included on a student's transcript: place on probation for disciplinary reasons (or words to that effect) but that notation can often have a sunset clause; that is: it automatically disappears after a number of years.
"Plagiarism is one of the most vehemently derided breaches of academic integrity because it undermines the premise that scholarly work will make an original and honest contribution to an existing body of knowledge."
And, this is a good starting point that succinctly captures the nature of concern. Plagiarism "undermines" the fundamental premises and work of the university. We assume that the research done by the chemist into, say, new medicines is honest and original and needed to advance cures for various diseases. We assume that research in biology is honest and original because it might help us address global warming or pollution. We assume that the political scientist's study of an election is their own and helps us advance the cause of democracy ... and so on down the line.
Plagiarism is a form of dishonesty. This is important for a range of reasons. If the chemist or political scientist or literary critic plagiarizes (the professor, I am talking about), they are, in effect, not doing the job for which they were paid. We pay the literary critic to assess and interpret literature; the sociologist to study society, the physicist to study the stars, or whathaveyou. If they cheat and plagiarize, they are in effect, getting paid for *not* doing their work but instead claiming (falsely) that simply cutting and pasting from someone else is good enough for them to be paid. Would we accept that in any other occupation? I expect my plumber to fix my pipes, and not print off a copy of a fixed pipe form the internet and show it to me.
For students, it is important to note that plagiarism is theft. I get that for some students it does not seem like that (and, I suspect that is one reasons why a very small number of people do cheat). But, it is it. If someone takes, say, my words and pretends they wrote them (which is what happens if you don't give me credit), it is similar to going into my house and taking my TV. If someone came to my house when I was not home, took my TV, and put it in their house ... it is still my TV. It does not become theirs because it is in their house. Likewise, my words do not become someone else's because someone pastes them into a paper.
If we accepted cheating -- be it plagiarism or some other form of academic dishonesty -- most of the rest of what we do becomes irrelevant. How does one determine what is good work (and, say, worthy of support) from what is not? How does one determine good research -- that might help people solve problems or which will enrich cultural and intellectual life -- from that which is just, in effect, a print off or something someone else said or did?
There are, to be sure, all kinds of problems with the competitive admissions standards of North American universities. From what I understand they are biased in favour of groups with power and influence. Does anyone think that marginalized social groups will benefit from a situation that permits cheating as a standard of success? Or, does anyone want to say to school kids: don't work hard, don't learn things. You will be assessed in school not by your knowledge of math or literature or music but by your ability to print off someone else's work. Does anyone think that legalized cheating will teach kids math or poetry or biochemistry? I'd argue that opposite: like Bretag, I believe it would undermine the educational process and make it, in effect, irrelevant.
I don't think this will create a scholarly extinction level events because, as I said, most people -- the vast majority -- are honest. After all, that is why plagiarism is not allowed: most people think it is wrong. But, letting people cheat will not solve problems and will not help anyone learn. And, this was something I thought everyone knew and so its periodic emergence in the public sphere and its period occurrence in university confuse me. More on that in the next blog ...