Writing is hard work and all the marvels of modern technology haven’t made it any easier. Vast resources now lie just keystrokes away, but the basic art of assembling one’s thoughts into engaging prose is little changed since the days of paper and pencil. While mindless information doubles every three years, thoughtful writing still proceeds at an old fashioned pace.
Unfortunately, the timeless nature of writing isn’t shared by its fraudulent imitation: plagiarism. Though nearly as ancient as writing itself, plagiarism adapts quickly to new technology. With a web full of seemingly ownerless prose, plagiarism is as easy as cut-and-paste. And if you don’t see exactly what you want for free, you can buy it online at any number of “paper mills.”
But a more insidious way in which technology has fostered plagiarism is by shifting our attention from content to appearance. A well-written student paper is no longer “A” work unless it’s printed in color on glossy paper, with fonts and images and an accompanying multimedia presentation. Students feel expected to turn in the best papers ever written, not the best papers they can write themselves. So they assemble those papers. With hours invested in the decorations, students feel justified in stealing some or all of the text. After all, they “couldn’t have said it any better” themselves.
In addition to its easy rationalization by people seeking the rewards of writing without the associated effort, plagiarism is also widely misunderstood. It isn’t limited to the theft of another person’s words; it also includes the theft of their ideas. More generally, plagiarism is any form of dishonesty about authorship. A reader or listener should always know whose thoughts they’re hearing.
Plagiarism isn’t a victimless crime. It deprives its readers of their time and trust, and its true authors of their good names. In academia, plagiarism inflates grades relative to education and devalues honest scholarship. Among authors and journalists, plagiarism cheapens the very art of writing, much as performance enhancing drugs cheapen so many sports. Plagiarism is as much a problem of morale as it is of ethics.
Prosecuting plagiarists is a miserable undertaking. It brings joy to no one, as I know from sad experience at the University of Virginia. After uncovered extensive plagiarism in my large introductory physics class in 2001, I spent two years dealing with endless honor cases. But I view that episode as an anti-scandal—as an enlightened community taking action against a misbehaving few in order to maintain its own intellectual integrity. Eliminating plagiarism isn’t about the plagiarists; it’s about supporting the honest people by giving them a fair environment.
Plagiarism isn’t an obscure tweed-collar crime. It’s a sorry fact of life everywhere and any school or organization that feels untainted is probably in denial. With plagiarism so commonplace, an organization that deals openly with it deserves our support, not our condemnation. There is no scandal in cleaning house. The scandal is in tolerating or covering up plagiarism.
Unfortunately, plagiarism is openly tolerated in the most public sectors of modern life. It wasn’t always that way. Lincoln didn’t just perform his Gettysburg address; he actually wrote it. What happened to that tradition of intellectual honesty in public speech? With ghostwriting so ubiquitous among the rich and powerful, it’s no wonder that young people see little value in learning to write well. They view writing the way they view cleaning their rooms—an unpleasant chore they’ll do only until they can afford to hire someone else.
When students believe that writing assignments are merely hazing rituals, hurdles on the path to success in life, some will inevitably plagiarize. And when instructors assign writing that has no clear educational goals, how can the students value it? Having explicitly stated goals is both good discipline and a way to avoid misunderstandings. If students believe an assignment is “busy work,” some will be busy cheating.
Finally, students need to be taught that the act of writing is intrinsically valuable to them. It crystallizes one’s thoughts in a way that nothing else can. As a physicist, I find that I often learn more from writing papers and proposals than I do from working in the laboratory. I rarely find writing easy, but I always find it rewarding.
Originally published on the Commentary Page of the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, April 4, 2004, edited by John Timpane.