Is plagiarism that big a deal?

My question was inspired by this thread. Many members of my family are in education, so I’ve heard many of the arguments of why it’s a big deal. But I’m not really bothered by it in most cases. Of course, publishing something that you stole is a clear ethical violation, but who is hurt when some high school kid pays a friend to write his essay? In the other thread, people were advocating expulsion from college for plagarism. I think that is way overboard. Yes, it’s wrong to do, but expelling someone can majorly screw up thier life. Plus the arguments I hear from people who abhor plagiarism seem weak to me.

If we want to live in a world were people are increasingly judged by their grades and test scores, I think we need to accept that cheating is going to happen more often. I think this seems to be generational issue, in which the older generations sees plagiarism as a terrible sin, whereas most people my age see it as a means to an end. What am I missing about plagiarism, cheating, and incorrect citation that bothers people so much.

Martin Luther King got away with it.

To clarify, I don’t think the fact that Martin Luther King plagiarized detracts at all from his accomplishments. I do find it interesting, however, this is a rarely cited fact, especially when being told how bad plagiarism is (not that that’s an unjust arguement).

I do believe though that plagiarism is often an overblown crime. I don’t condone it, but I don’t think it’s any worse than cheating, though it seems to be treated as such in many schools.

The kid who had his friend write a paper for him. The educational system is suppose to ensure that he knows how to compose a paper, demonstrate that he’s knowledgeable about the topic being written, and show us that he’s capable to doing independent research on his topic.

I suppose it depends on just how much plagiarism is going on. If an undergraduate plagiarized one of his papers I believe he should automatically fail that course and be placed on probation. If he plagiarized papers for most of his classes then I think he should be expelled post haste. If a graduate student plagiarizes a paper I believe he should be expelled. As far as I’m concerned a plagiarist has no room to bitch or moan when punished and should be grateful if allowed to remain in school.

So long as there have been grades in schools there has been pressure to succeed. I can accept that cheating will occur but can you accept that cheaters will have to live with the consequences of getting caught? Why do people have a problem with plagiarism and cheating in general? Because most of us don’t like liars and a plagiarist is a liar.

Incorrect citation is either an innocent mistake or a sign of sloppy work. Personally I don’t believe it belongs in the same category as cheating or plagiarism.


Education is the route to professional qualifications and we don’t want professionals who have cheated their way to their qualifications - we want ones who can do their damn job.

Maybe it is a generational thing or maybe a sex thing? I don’t know but if it is then the cheating bastard generation needs a good kicking. Of course cheating always goes on but you speak as if attainment is an entitlement not a reward for skill and effort.

In 1994 I graduated from a Spanish university and joined a Chemistry PhD program in the USA.

In February of 1997 all I was “missing” to finish the PhD was:

  • a second published article (already had one in JACS)
  • to prepare and defend a research project
  • to mesh all my writing into a thesis and defend it; I could do this in one week.

I could have gotten the PhD in 3.5 years, if my advisor had been willing to colaborate.

Then my second article was published. Or rather, what should have been my second article… but wasn’t. 75% of the research in that article was mine; I had done the actual writing. But the only names that appeared were those of my advisor, a different student (who was listed as the principal researcher and had done the other 25% of the research), and the other student’s advisor. This is considered plagiarism, legally.

I went to see my advisor, asked what was that supposed to mean. His answer:
“you are the best fucking researcher I’ve ever worked with, and you’re a foreigner. You can’t go anywhere without my permission and if you complain it will be your word against two professors. I’ve figured out that between the grant you got from Spain and working for the University, I could get you for free for 11 years, so there’s no fucking way I’ll let you go sooner.”

The graduate advisor for the department was the other professor involved.

The head of the department is a useless asshole who doesn’t know hydrogen from helium and who was angry at me because I had not wanted to join his research group. (1)

Speaking with other professors I was able to obtain confirmation that my advisor and the graduate advisor had no intention to bulge. It also indicated that nobody would speak up on my side, if I went to the dean; the professors would “protect their own” even though it actually meant harming the program.

So, I got an MD without thesis, which I already had the credits for and which did not require my advisor’s permission.

Any further questions about the importance of proper “authoring”?

(1) Actually, he was angry at everybody who had not been interested in joining his group. He taught one compulsory course, didn’t know the first thing about it, gave As to all “his” students, Ds to all the rest of us. In 75 years or so, that department had had 11 graduate students “on probation” and only one had been able to get out of it; this guy’s boutade sent 29 people to probation, some with averages over 3.7, and all of us got out of probation. The university’s own mechanisms hadn’t noticed anything amiss in Denmark, so excuse me if I don’t think the dean of graduate studies was particularly intelligent.

The end being qualification for something you cannot do?
Off the top of my head, I can think of a handful of professions in which this would be catastophic: Doctors, architects, air-traffic controllers.
What if you get someone to sit your driving test for you? The people in the bus queue you mow down during your fist “legal” drive may not consider it “a generational issue”.
I know it’s already been said but it’s worth saying again: Plagarism = lying.

Many subjects now award each grade to a set number of students, how would you feel if you missed out on a qualification because someone else had handed in plagarised work?

If we allow plagiarism where’s anyone’s insentive to do any work? Why learn anything? Why study? Why write that essay if you can get just as far copying someone else?

Pretty soon you’ve got a world where only one person knows anything, and everyone else knows nothing because they didn’t study, they copied. “Are you qualified for the job?” “Qualified yes, but I don’t actually know anything. Though I’m pretty sure I know how to copy someone who does know. I’m sure that’ll be ok.”

Does that sound like a productive or safe world? What you’re missing is quite apart from it being immoral and lying, it’s a recipe for ensuring that the brightest and best are lost among those who just know how to cut and paste. Saying it’s a generational thing sounds like rather weak justification.

Bottom line - Plagarism misrepresents your ability. If enough people can get qualifications through plagarism, the qualification becomes meaningless as a guage of ability, even for those who could actually gain the qualification on their own merit.

Tell one of my college English professors this. I didn’t properly cite 2-3 passages in a paper written far too close to the deadline (although the books used were listed in the bibliography - would make it easy to find the passages that way, given the lack of internet at that time), yet she was ready to bring me up on departmental charges. Fortunately, cooler head prevailed. I did get an F on the paper, though.

For the record:

  • I wrote the paper (as opposed to buying one).
  • I typed the paper on an typewriter
  • The paper had about a dozen foonotes (not endnotes); those of you who have worked on typewriters can commiserate about the pain of planning footnotes on a paper.
  • The paper had a complete bibliography, including the works from which I “plagiarized”.
  • I finished the paper about 3 hours before my first morning class, and was sleep-writing.

Did I fail to properly cite in a few (2-3) places? Yes.
Was it a malicious attempt to cheat and pass off others work as my own? No.
Should I have been brought up on departmental charges, with a maximum penalty of expulsion?
Should I have automatically failed the class?
Should I have gotten an F on the paper?

I’ll let the reader answer the last three for his or herself.

brickbacon, how old are you? What do you consider “the older generation?”

Brickbacon, did you write this post yourself?

The high school student is, as well as all his classmates who did the work honestly, and a society that has certain expectations of HS graduates, including a certain minimal level of integrity.

To begin with, first-time minor plagarism rarely results in expulsion. For the serial cases, expulsion amounts to “go somewhere else.”

Which is why you’re doing such a spectacular job rebutting them here, eh?

If by “accept” you mean “acknowledge that it will happen,” few of us in education will argue with you. For that matter, most of us would agree that grades and test scores are too important.

Hell, robbing a bank is a “means to an end.”

May I suggest that your impression of your peers is perhaps shaped by your own circle of freinds? I teach college freshmen, and many of them would be very pissed to find out one of their classmates had cheated. Of course those would be the students with intelligence, integrity and a work ethic.

Why am I guessing someone here has a meeting scheduled with the Student Conduct Office?
D_Odds: As a college English Professor, I’d answer your last three no, no, and maybe. The fact that you were “sleep-writing” gets no sympathy; just the opposite, in fact.

The end justifies the means, eh?

Any idea where that comes from? Will do the work yourself in order to find out, or just steal the results from someone else?

Then we’re in agreement, although I was a bit more indignant (and scared) at the time. 20 years ago, I was quite a bit more liberal in my thinking about crime and punishment; today, I feel the F was a very fair compromise, considering that at no time prior to or after was there any indication of any plagiarized or cheated work (which would have been hard to find as there was none).

And if it wasn’t for sleep-writing my papers, I never would have handed in any assignment, in any class, on time! :wink:

Odd thing to bring up, but I think his situation kinda makes my point. If he was expelled and cast out as a liar and cheater, I think society at large would have suffered. Do people really think he wasn’t qualified to do the things he did just cause he ripped off a few lines?

How is the kid hurt? He got paid. Is a ghostwriter hurt when his material is released under someone else’s name? In both situations, there is a monetary arrangement that is mutually beneficial, and the consumer does usually know about the arrangement.

Fair enough, but I think most people lie and if you want to be a hard nose about it, you’ll find yourself alone. Lying is not telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Can you really say you do that all the time? Should I not like you cause you don’t?

First, I doubt the vast majority of plagarism ends with incompetent people in powerful and important positions. Most of it is due to laziness. It’s certainly not a good thing, but it won’t result in doctors that don’t know where your kidneys are. A decent percentage of people have cheated at one time or another. Do you really think all of those people can’t do their jobs?

Most of what you learn in school has no bearing on what most people in their careers. The socialization, discipline, and logic skills attained are far more important than the essay you wrote on Macbeth (assuming you aren’t an English teacher). Plus, most jobs train you before they put you in a position where you could screw things up. If it is clear to them that you are an idiot who knows nothing about your field, they will find out quickly. The world is self-correcting in that way.

Good point. I don’t know how common this is, but you raise a good argument.

This is a weak argument. Plagiarism will never reach that tipping point for a number of reasons. It’s like arguing the existence of welfare will lead to a world where nobody will work. I don’t buy it. It’s also the same argument the RIAA makes with regard to record sales. It, however, is not true.

This might be true if people cheat because they are incapable of doing something. Again, most people are lazy, not incompetent. Plus, the difference between plagarism and great work is often incorrect or missing citation. Most great works rely, in part, on the work of others. Should that be considered that big a crime? Many people say Einstein didn’t cite his papers correctly and give the right people credit. Does that make him a liar and cheater (assuming he did it)?

Now that’s funny

Go back and read what I typed. The kid who pays for the assignment to be done is the one who is harmed. The educational system is suppose to ensure that he knows how to write a paper, knows how to do research, and can demonstrate a certain level of mastery about a topic. We’re not talking about a ghostwriter we’re talking about school situations.

If you’re not grown up enough to know the difference between a lie like “I’m fine” and turning in work that is not your own then I don’t even know where to begin.

<ahem> I would contend that the discipline, logic, and the ability to present an idea are things you learn while writing essays on Macbeth or any other topic. How do you learn those things if you’re paying someone else to write your essays or just stealing them from someone else?

I don’t care if you cheat because you’re lazy or because you’re incapable of doing something. Either way I wouldn’t want you on my team. I have very little sympathy for people who are caught and punished for cheating. While I don’t necessarily think it should result in automatic expulsion from school it should result in an automatic failure of a test and maybe even the entire course. If you want to cheat, fine, just take it like an adult when you get caught.


I’m 22. I consider it people over 35 (in a general sense).

If one student’s grade is not dependent on the grades of the others, then how are they hurt? Do you really think someone who cheats on an essay has no integrity? I don’t think I’d go that far.

I do have to sleep and fulfill my other obligations. This is the first time I read what everyone wrote.

This means nothing.

You’re a teacher and comedian huh? I guess you missed the first post where I explain what inspired this thread. Did you cheat in your reading comprehension class? I would hope a teacher would read more carefully. I guess you also missed where I stated that many members of my family are in education. I’m sure they have collectively been exposed to 10x the number of students that you have, and they have agreed with me that many people my age feel this way. These are not stupid kids. My mom has taught honors English at a top NJ high school for about 25 years. My three other family members in education are also exposed to people with intelligence, integrity, and a strong work ethic. These are people that go to Ivy league schools, and go on to be lawyers, engineers, and doctors (which I am studying to become). Don’t assume they are stupid because they don’t see cheating on an insignificant assignment as a terrible thing.

Also, funny.

The kid who pays his friend to write a paper for him is hurting himself by not writing the paper; do you understand that, brickbacon? The exercise of writing the paper is assigned for a reason: to help the student learn to formulate, organize, and express ideas.

Learning to do this is also called "learning to think."

The teacher doesn’t care what the student knows about symbolism in Flannery O’Connor, or about John Locke’s theory of social contract; the point is that the student learns to consider subjects analytically, and to communicate his/her thoughts in a lucid and compelling way. You can have the world’s most groundbreaking, earth-shaking ideas, but if you cannot express them clearly to others, they are worthless.

There is no shortcut to learning to do this. You cannot learn it by paying someone to write a paper for you. You cannot learn it by downloading a paper off the Internet. You cannot learn it by taking someone else’s work and presenting it as your own. There is no substitute for doing the work.

Many people never learn to do this. I’m sure many of them live relatively happy lives. But they will never be fully engaged with the world, with their culture, with history; and, frankly, their passing through this world will never change much here.

Plagiarism is a lazy, inexcusable avoidance of a richer life.