By Barry D. Friedman, Ph.D.
Copyright 2000 by Barry D. Friedman --
All Rights Reserved
NOTE: If you have never taken Barry Friedman's
Much Do You Know About Plagiarism," please take it
NOW. Download this Adobe pdf file.
In high school, and in freshman English classes in colleges and universities, teachers warn students about plagiarism. In many cases, the teacher uses the rule that if a students gets a score of 75 percent on the material, the teacher passes the student. An incident of plagiarism may cost the student 10 points, so he gets an 85 instead of 95. And the teacher sends the student on to the next course.
[Note to any undergraduate reading this essay: Don't assume that your professors will necessarily forgive plagiarism. Some of them are every bit as adamant about this offensive behavior as I am. Take this essay, and this warning, seriously. Even undergraduates have been suspended from the university for committing plagiarism.]
However, in the professional and academic community, committing plagiarism 25 percent of the time is unacceptable. Plagiarism is considered a severe offense.
Here is why: Among other things, scholars must know about the development of knowledge in their academic disciplines. Who discovered this? Who modified it? Who disproved part of it? And so forth.
Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In that book, he explained that a field of study will have a paradigm (i.e., a central theory around which a discipline is organized) around which its scholars will keep themselves busy. Eventually, a scholar in the field will challenge the paradigm by presenting contrary evidence. The scholars who have staked their careers on the paradigm will try to fend off the challenge to it. But, once enough evidence is amassed to discredit the paradigm, it will be replaced by the new paradigm. As an example, the old paradigm of astronomy was that the other planets, the sun and the other stars rotate around the earth. Any astronomer who thought otherwise would be ridiculed. However, with the discovery of the telescope, evidence accumulated that the earth rotates around the sun, as do the other solar-system planets. Finally, the old paradigm collapsed, and the new paradigm took its place. The process by which alchemy was discredited is a similar example of the collapse of a paradigm.
So, the question of "Who discovered this?" is significant to scholars. My graduate students notice this: The names of scholars who developed theories become important for the first time in graduate school. It's not the same in elementary or high school or even in college: At the lower educational levels, we want students to learn a bunch of startling facts, like the fact that water boils at 212 F, the fact that the moon is 240,000 mi from the earth, the fact that there are three branches of the U. S. national government. Who cares who found these things out? A high-school sophomore should just know these facts, regardless of who the discoverer was.
However, at higher levels of scholarly inquiry, knowledge of the development of research and discovery becomes vital. When any of us writes an article or a book in our discipline or profession, our colleagues are interested in knowing who said what, and what you (or any other author) are purporting to add to the storehouse of knowledge in the field. If you are building on the work of Smith and Jones, then your article is expected to delineate exactly what Smith discovered, and what Jones discovered, and then to reveal what you (or any other author) are adding to the field. If you expound on a theory without citing any other source, the reader is entitled to assume that you are the theorist. If you fail to cite the source of the findings that you're describing, then the reader becomes confused. In other words, you are disrupting the reader's learning process in the field. It will then take some time for the reader to be set straight, and therefore it will prolong the time it takes for the reader to become knowledgeable in the field, too. To cause this confusion is considered an intolerable disservice.
Also, there are certain rewards to which a scholar is entitled for writing a book or an article. She is entitled to a royalty, to promotion or tenure, or to admiration. A plagiarist is assumed to be obtaining these rewards without doing the research, which is also considered intolerable.
Because plagiarism creates a disservice like this to other people in the discipline, it is thus considered offensive. Plagiarists are condemned, and are considered fair game for denunciation and ridicule.
Two brief case studies can help to illustrate this point. In 1988, U. S. Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.) was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. One day, during the primary campaign, he delivered a speech; at least one listener recognized the text as something that he had heard before. The Dukakis campaign leaked the information to the news media, which reported on the incident. For days afterwards, Biden was hounded by reporters, asking him about the plagiarism incident. Biden was driven from the presidential race, and soon thereafter suffered a heart attack. Fortunately, he recovered from the heart attack, but his name essentially remains a synonym for plagiarism, as in "he pulled a Joe Biden on us."
Then, there is the incident involving the dean of Boston University's School of Communications, who was asked to deliver a commencement address. As the dean delivered his speech, several members of the audience recognized the content as having come from a column written by conservative columnist and movie critic Michael Medved. The news media were tipped off, and for days afterwards articles appeared in newspapers across the country, speculating on the dean's future. Finally, the dean submitted his resignation to BU President John Silber. Silber quickly announced that he had accepted the resignation "without regret." In other words, Silber was saying that he and BU were glad to be rid of this dean.
So teachers continue to warn students about plagiarism, and students who got a 75 percent in English continue to commit plagiarism. This goes on and on. Some of my most intelligent graduate students over the years have committed plagiarism, usually inadvertently. I had a student in a public management course years ago: It was his last course, and he had a 4.0 grade-point average up to that point. On the desk of the program coordinator was a certificate that the student was about to receive on graduation day, recognizing his completion of the M.P.A. Program with a 4.0 average. The student submitted his last assignment---a take-home final examination---to me. Virtually every paragraph had a citation. However, virtually every paragraph was a direct quotation from the cited source, and no quotation marks were used. It was apparent that the plagiarism was inadvertent, because the citations gave me a road map to identifying the plagiarism. He ended up with a "C" in the course, after having obtained an "A" in every other course in the program, and the certificate that he was going to receive on graduation day was, instead, discarded.
Still, it behooves teachers to warn students over and over. This is what can happen to a scholar/professional who misunderstands plagiarism: The scholar may be asked by a friend who edits the statewide publication of their professional association to write an article. The scholar then writes the article, but plagiarizes other sources. Some readers recognize the plagiarism, and write letters to the editor that denounce and ridicule the author--that's you. Your friend, the editor, doesn't want to appear to be a collaborator in the plagiarism incident, so she writes an editorial repudiating you and putting a lot of distance between you and her. Your reputation is soiled; your employer may impose some kind of penalty on you, too; and your colleagues will give you the cold shoulder thereinafter. So we keep warning our students about plagiarism.
When a scholar commits plagiarism, his colleagues necessarily conclude that the person either did it deliberately--in which case he is a fraud--or did it out of ignorance--in which case he is an idiot. Thus, the analysis of a plagiarist falls into the fraud-or-idiot dichotomy. It's one or the other. This is why I penalize graduate students for plagiarism, even when it appears to be inadvertent. At that level, inadvertent plagiarism is an indication of scholarly incompetence, at best. Occasionally, I offer a course in "State and Local Government" by independent study. A few years ago, I enrolled four graduate students in various majors in the course during the same academic quarter. When the first written assignments came in, three out of the four students had directly quoted lengthy passages from the textbook without using quotation marks. I returned the assignments and wrote the word "Plagiarism" on top. As usually happens, they became upset, concerned that I was accusing them of being motivated to cheat. As far as the fourth student who did not plagiarize her first assignment: She turned in a term paper which was written by several people, although the cover page identified her as the sole author.
So now, on the first day of every course that I teach, I warn students about plagiarism. A few years ago, I was making this speech in an M.P.A. class, and warning the students very sternly about the penalties associated with plagiarism. One of my students said, "You know, you're really scaring me." He was becoming concerned about the possibility that he might inadvertently commit plagiarism, and that I would impose a severe penalty. I replied, "Now that you mention it, I'm terrified of committing plagiarism, too!"
Several years ago, I had a graduate student who turned in a research paper in which there were lengthy passages from various sources, but there were no quotation marks. I told her that I was penalizing her by reducing her course grade by one grade level, as long as she submitted a second, acceptable paper. When she came back to work out the arrangements for rewriting the paper, she was fiercely angry at me. I held my ground and said: "Please, do me a favor. If you ever quote a source directly, even in a letter to a friend, please put the quotation in quotation marks." The student shook her head vigorously, because she considered this instruction to be ludicrous. Quotation marks in a letter to a friend! Imagine! But she rewrote the paper and did a great job, and she got a "B" in the course (because I penalized her one grade level). A while later, she visited me and told me that she was putting direct quotations in quotation marks when she wrote letters to friends.
about her when I read a "Dear Abby" column a few months after that
incident. You need to read this excerpt:
DEAR READERS: Last year I printed a letter from a California mother who wanted to share a letter she and her husband had received from their daughter the night before her wedding. It read:
"Dearest Parents: On our wedding day, as my husband and I take our vows and make promises to each other, I make this promise to you as well. Even as I take him into my heart and life, I promise to keep you, parents dear, in my heart and life always.
"On this day, know that our love is not divided; it is multiplied, and you are embraced with the full measure of love and promises that he and I share here today.
"For I know that I am able to love and cherish him so much because you loved and cherished me first."
I recently received the following letter from a Waterford, Mich., reader. Read on:
DEAR ABBY: You published a letter a couple received as a gift from their daughter the night before her wedding, and you responded that it was a beautiful tribute to them and that they had raised a winner.
I wept when I read the words of the letter, as I did when I first wrote them a few years ago. I am an owner of the Victoria Wedding Chapel in Waterford, Mich. The tribute was written by me with my own precious mother in mind--to sell as a scroll to brides at my chapel.
It is now also sold by I Do Ltd., a mail-order firm in Newport Beach, Calif., from whom I receive royalties.
Although the California bride may have copied my words, it does not diminish her sincerity, for I have always known that the thousands of brides across the country who have purchased my scroll must have an extraordinary love and appreciation for their mothers or parents.
I wrote not so much to claim credit for the words, but because my own dear parents, Florence and Edwin Ostrander of Pontiac, Mich., both now gone, deserve the ultimate tribute. Indeed, I am a winner, for they instilled in me such love and gratitude that I was able to write words that touch the hearts of many brides and, among the thousands of letters you receive, touched you as well. -- Sharon Ostrander Reed
DEAR SHARON: Please accept my apology for any pain that was caused because someone else claimed credit for your beautiful essay. Your parents raised a very special daughter, and your words have inspired countless brides and deeply touched their parents.
Readers who quote the
writings of others should always remember to credit the author.
[All italics and underscoring have been added.]
There! Do you see? The woman who wrote to Abby to share her joy at receiving the essay from her daughter didn't really raise a "winner" after all; she raised a lousy plagiarist! Imagine the mother's pain and embarrassment to realize what her daughter had done.
I want to tell you what I tell my students: If, at this point, you're still not entirely certain of what plagiarism is, don't guess! Ask questions. Ask us lots of questions! It's a whole lot better to ask questions about plagiarism than it is to commit plagiarism. If we seem to be shrill and unreasonable, just keep in mind that your colleagues, once you're doing research in the field, will subject you to criticism that is a lot more merciless than anything that we professors are inclined to impose. What would really be inconsiderate and even hateful on our part would be to send you out into the professional and academic world without a clue about what they do to plagiarists.
Personal disclaimer: This page is not a publication of North Georgia College & State University and NGCSU has not edited or examined the content of the page. The author of the page is solely responsible for the content.
Last updated on August 28, 2007, by Barry D. Friedman.
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