The Problem with Plagiarism

9 Aug 2010

The New York Times’ recent report on professors’ and university administrators’ distress over widespread plagiarism among undergraduates reminded me how this coming year, again, I will need to spend more time reminding my graduate students what counts as plagiarism and how to quote and document correctly. (Pet peeve: citations included within the quotation marks. More on that below.) It’s not just undergrads; my very smart M.D., J.D., and genetic counseling students are also sometimes confused and sloppy.

But what bugs me about plagiarism wasn’t covered in the Times article. Yes, plagiarism is bad because it is a form of cheating. But the “innocent” plagiarists, meaning those who copy from Wikipedia without credit, worry me more. These are the legions of students (and future doctors and lawyers and genetic counselors!) who don’t seem to understand that knowledge doesn’t just exist out there in the universe. It is stated, written, claimed by someone, and that someone might be wrong. That’s why we keep track of where stuff came from: so that we can judge the reliability of a knowledge claim, and go back and correct people when they’re wrong.

When students “borrow” material without credit, often they’re admitting that they need a lesson in epistemology, not (just) ethics. The kind of students who think “facts” from a truly scholarly, peer-reviewed source are the same as “facts” from Fox News or from a drug company’s ads turn into the kind of opinion leaders who think “facts” from the Bible are as legitimate as Einstein’s finest scientific work.

Yes, cheaters are bad for the world. But even worse is a generation of future professionals who don’t know how to think about knowledge. This is why I go apeshit when I find students putting citations for work inside quotation marks. Example:

Dreger states “you should not put citations in the quotation marks (Dreger, 2010).”

Doing this isn’t just a stylistic error; it is a sign that you don’t understand the core concept of what a quotation is. It is a cry for help.

Before I left undergraduate teaching, I had an idea for an online teaching system that could be used by anyone in academia. The system would be an online tutorial for teaching students the basics of plagiarism, citation, documentation, quoting, and judging sources for trustworthiness. At the end would be a test, and if the student passed the test, she or he would be awarded a License to Cite. Professors could require the License to Cite before accepting any papers from students. Students who then plagiarized would have no opportunity to claim “but I didn’t understand.” (The only way they could not understand is if they cheated on the online test, in which case they’re still cheaters.)

I really wish I had developed that program, but since I didn’t, I hope someone will now steal the idea from me and make it a reality. I would use it in my own classes. In the meantime, I’m going to keep teaching my students the rules that everyone says they should have learned with the last professor. Because I absolutely hate having to wonder if a student I like really didn’t understand what constitutes plagiarism, or just decided to test my affection by cheating.