Who Cares about Plagiarism?

With the rise of the Internet and the Information Age, plagiarism has become an arms race-like endeavor. Crafty students pay for papers, while the less crafty simply copy and paste from websites. In response, professors use new digital tools, paid for by the university, or simply plug key unlikely phrases into Google.

Thief cartoon
Plagiarism is not a joking matter.

College classes are about more than imparting information about specific fields. Students are often lured to school by the promise of high-paying jobs once they have earned some credential.

Instead, students find that they’re suddenly adrift in a world that only vaguely resembles the one they came from. They have crossed the threshold of the intellectual world.

And in the intellectual world, the rules of the game are different.

The Rules of the Game

It is traditional, in Western Culture, to divide experience into the worlds of the Mind, Body, and Spirit. You might have heard the phrase “life of the mind” in reference to working as a college professor — that’s the world they’re supposed to be introducing students to.

"Intellectual Development" (statue) by Hermon Atkins MacNeil
The world of the intellect follows its own rules.

In Western culture, priests and ministers give us guidance in the realm of the spirit, and professors are our guides to the “life of the mind.” (You can read more about the realities of the “life of the mind” on the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

Why is this important? Because plagiarism is a crime in the intellectual world. When a student, or a researcher for that matter, takes someone else’s ideas and uses them as their own, that’s theft. And in the intellectual world, it’s the theft of something valuable.

Together with the falsification of data and unethical research on human subjects, plagiarism is one of the three great crimes that can be committed in the intellectual world.

  • The development of human knowledge requires intellectual honesty.

Academia is based around the collaborative development of ideas. In dialectic, two people argue in order to create a greater truth than either could come up with on their own. But dialectic argument comes with a set of rules, and one of them is that the evidence provided needs to be both true and source-able.

Without the proper sourcing of information, there’s no way for anyone to judge the quality of an argument. In the West, academic discussions don’t exist ex nihilo; they rest on twenty-five hundred years of intellectual development.

  • When a student steals someone else’s ideas, they don’t learn what they were supposed to learn.

College is, at its best, about more than just learning to recite information back in order to prove that you’ve learned it. It’s a process of training the mind for rigorous thought, honest analysis, and a comprehension of the rules of intellect in the West.

In other words, higher education is not about saying the “right” things, but about being able to generate certain types of thought and use specific intellectual tools to analyze data and situations. Academic papers, conference presentations, and all of that are simply the proof of thought and a way of sharing it.

Plagiarism is parroting someone else’s words — but the words weren’t the point. The point was to think, and think in specific ways.

  • Breaking the rules of the intellectual world (plagiarizing) in order to gain recognition (passing a class, getting a degree, etc.) is like stealing a car to get to police academy graduation.

Some students will internalize these rules, and come to understand why they’re important. Some will simply follow a “when in Rome” policy and get through. But in the end, some students still can’t (or won’t!) understand why plagiarism’s a big deal.

What’s to Be Done?

Higher education, especially at the bachelor’s level, is (among other things) a process of socialization into intellectual honesty. Sure, some plagiarism in an undergraduate paper is the metaphorical equivalent of a kid stealing a candy bar. But, like stealing candy as a kid, there should be serious consequences.

Plagiarism should not be tolerated because it undermines the purpose of education and academia. Students need to learn that there are consequences. That doesn’t mean kicking them out of college for the slightest infraction. But it does mean that students need to apologize, feel intellectual shame, and correct the problem.

Being given a “zero” doesn’t teach a student anything. Kicking them out of school doesn’t teach them either — though it may be necessary for the good of the overall institution.

Like any other form of socialization, inappropriate behavior requires the deft hand of a teacher. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for every student. But any student who thinks it’s “not a big deal” is missing the point of education.

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