Now, the simple answer that many would give is that they react so vehemently to the idea (or fact) of plagiarism because it constitutes a gross violation of trust, honesty, etc., and that it is outrageous that anyone would ever represent the ideas or words of another as his/her own, under any circumstances. Thus, the anger is a righteous anger. Many would then go on to say that there is no doubt as to what constitutes plagiarism and that those who commit the crime of plagiarism should be given the smack-down without hesitation. Further, some would say that there is no need for a policy to be in place, because everybody knows that this is against the rules.
It's these simple answers that have me thinking. First, something in me resists the impulse to anger that so often characterizes academic discussions about plagiarism, as if each instance of plagiarism constitutes a personal affront to individual academics. They characterize the actions of the plagiarist as actions motivated by contempt or arrogance, as malicious. Now, I have a good track record of catching plagiarists (student plagiarists). I take plagiarism seriously. And yet, I don't think a single one of them was plagiarizing to hurt my feelings or to offend me. I also don't think that they really thought much about the possibility of being caught, so it's not that they arrogantly assumed that they'd get away with it. Rather, plagiarists are desperate. Yep, every single one of them, even high-falutin' ones like Doris Kearns Goodwin, is motivated by desperation.
Now, why is the plagiarist desperate? Why does the plagiarist despair? Here are some reasons:
- The plagiarist thinks that he or she cannot do the work and succeed under his or her own steam.
- The plagiarist is under some sort of a time crunch, whether because of procrastination or something outside of his/her control, and so thinks that the only way to get the work done is to "borrow" from somebody else.
- The plagiarist doesn't really believe in the "assignment" and doesn't really believe that anybody will check for plagiarism or necessarily read what they've written with any attention (and I think this is the one that is probably the biggest issue with non-student plagiarists).
With students, it makes sense to take plagiarism seriously because it impresses upon them the fact that their own, original ideas *matter.* It's about showing them that even if they fear that they're not up to the task (whether because of ability or because of procrastination or because of a feeling that they are insignificant) that they shouldn't let that fear rule them because what's important is the process and not the product. If a student plagiarizes, it doesn't show me anything about them, and the whole point of submitting assignments is for them to show themselves to me. I'd rather get a crappy assignment than a plagiarized one, mainly because I can't teach them anything if they're not showing me where they are with the material. I can teach a student who turns in something that sucks: I can't teach a student who turns in something that somebody else wrote. Moreover, most stuff that plagiarists choose to plagiarize sucks worse than what a student might do on his/her own. It just "sounds better."
Now, in the case that Dean Dad's correspondent described, this wasn't about a student, but about a faculty member, who plagiarized his (for the sake of convenience, imagine a his/her throughout) statement of teaching philosophy in his materials for reappointment (I get the sense that this was either for a 3rd year review or that the institution requires yearly submission of materials for probationary faculty). Is this different from an instance of a student plagiarizing? Are the reasons different, and is the situation even more clear-cut? These are the questions I've been asking myself all day long, as I've watched the comments to Dean Dad's post.
First of all, I think we're kidding ourselves if we think that everybody knows what constitutes plagiarism in every situation or that we regard all of our activities through that lens. Take a look at yourselves for a moment. Do you cite every idea that you present in a lecture that came from someplace other than your own brain? Every single one? Let's say that you're teaching an introductory course and they need some historical background. Do you tell them where you got that historical background from? Every time? Probably not. If you use an assignment that a colleague developed, do you cite him/her on the assignment sheet? Really? Some people may, but I think that this is a gray area for many of us. I mean, if something's not your idea you should cite it, and I'd argue that most of us follow this rule in scholarship, but in teaching? Really? Every single time?
What the case that Dean Dad's correspondent describes does is it ups the ante. What about when we talk about our teaching, in the context of something like promotion and tenure materials? Should that be original to us, or is it ok to borrow from others, or from the internet? Is this boilerplate stuff that we can freely borrow, or is it unique to us?
My impulse is that it should be unique to us. We should be talking specifically about our practices and our reasons for instituting those practices. I believe this in part because I'm at a teaching-intensive university, and you can't use boilerplate to discuss something that is intrinsic to what you do. And this was my impulse when I criticized some job applications when I was on a search committee, when two applicants from the same grad program used identical language in their job letters to talk about their teaching. My colleagues were more forgiving than I was in evaluating these candidates, citing that job letters included "boilerplate" language. I believed that it showed neither had really thought about his or her teaching in a deep way, but rather that they were talking the talk while not demonstrating that they could walk the walk. (I should note that while these candidates made it to first-round interviews, neither one of these candidates ultimately made the final cut for campus visits.)
This, my friends, is why it's helpful to have a policy, though. If it is clearly stated what is expected - that one talk specifically about his own teaching and how that relates to his broader theories about what teaching is supposed to achieve - then it makes sense to penalize people who don't meet that requirement. If, however, the message that is sent is that a) nobody will evaluate what is written very closely and b) that what is expected is "boilerplate" that fits a particular model and that is very general, that encourages plagiarism. It's just like giving a paper topic to students that is "conventional" and easily plagiarizable. And in that case, the "assignment" is the problem, as well as the system for evaluating it. Does that mean that the plagiarist is not culpable for his/her infraction? No. But to pretend that it's just "obvious" what should be done is also wrong.
It's not that the plagiarist is too simple-minded to understand the rules: it's that the implicit rules indicate one thing and the morality of those who enforce the rules indicates another. A strong statement about what is required eliminates this conflict. It also eliminates the personal investment in any conflict that might arise, as there is something to govern the response of the department or of the promotion and tenure committee. For me, the fact of the matter is this: if you don't give a good assignment, and if the person doing the assignment doesn't take the assignment seriously and believe that it matters, then you've got to interrogate the assignment itself and the person or people who are evaluating it. This doesn't excuse a breach of academic integrity, but it also doesn't authorize the evaluators to congratulate themselves for giving the smack-down.
Now, in the case that Dean Dad's correspondent described, do I think that the plagiarizer should have been renewed without reservation? Absolutely not. Do I think that they should have been renewed with reservations? Maybe, or maybe they should have given a terminal one-year contract and told to hit the road. It's not about feeling sorry for the person, though, if I express any leniency about this. It's about the fact that at the end of the day I really do believe that we've got to hold ourselves accountable for setting up situations in which plagiarism occurs. If we lay out the rules clearly, and the consequences clearly, and it still occurs? Obviously it's on the plagiarist. If we don't do those things? It's on us as well as on them. And we have no moral higher ground on which to stand. We are complicit.