A Debate on Plagarism

Plagiarism is a common topic of all students upon entering secondary education, and a fitting topic to discuss over pizza between one law and one doctoral student. The debate was simple: What constitutes plagiarism, and what is the purpose of enforcing it?

The debate was spawned by a rash of copying and pasting in one of my courses on a recent assignment. The answers were too correct. It was strange flipping through the assignments and giving correct answers more scrutiny than incorrect answers, but the level of similarities was uncanny (the solution contained notations unused in the class).

But this assignment is complex. The amount of variability between correct assignments that were not plagiarized is astounding. What of work that is plagarized that is not complex? For example, consider the response to a simple question of “What is the definition of plagiarism?” Well, in this case, we would either (a) come up with our own definition praying that it is correct but not too similar, (b) quote the definition, citation, and page, or (c) paraphrase the definition from some source while citing the work. But why bother? Especially considering how simple the question is.

Consider (a): coming up with your own definition. There are a few reasons why you should avoid this, do your research, and cite your work. Reasons likely unbeknown to many students. First, the most obvious, you may be wrong. Few things are worse than seeing the red pen scrawl NO across your paper because you stated fiction as fact. Second, the most subtle, you appear ignorant and uninformed. The definition for plagiarism that any one person can rattle off on the spot is likely vastly inferior or incomplete to the definition culled from the many other reputable sources.

Considering (b) and (c) is more complex. Does referring to simple combination of words, such as “due process” or “just cause,” could as plagiarism? Is there a specific number of words that you can “copy” without being suspect? I think both of these questions hearken back to our formative years in secondary education yearning for simple rules we can apply with reckless abandon. And here is where the former question flowed into the latter. Maybe it isn’t simply about avoiding copying others work as your own, or even correctly citing your sources, but more about expectations.

“Just cause” is two simple words tied together that, for a law student, have a specific meaning that is crucial to understand, and has a long precedent in legal writings. “Just cause” for myself, as a doctoral student in information systems, has zero meaning in the domain of knowledge. Or, at least, it is not a particular important concept. The law student may be charged with plagiarism without properly citing the work, while I would remain undetected if I were to, say, pull the definition off the Internet.

The expectation is precisely here. A law student is expected to read, understand, and apply the concept of “just cause” by properly paraphrasing and citing the work, and by doing so correctly demonstrates this expectation to the professor. For law, it gives the impression that the student has done their due diligence in reviewing the precedent behind the legal concept, therefore legitimizing the remainder of the work. A literature review in academic writing accomplishes the same task. It satiates the expectations of professors, reviewers, or whomever, that the writer is knowledgeable and well-read on the domain, and therefore a potentially good source of knowledge and understanding themselves.

Now, let us return to the homework assignment. The problem with plagiarizing a homework assignment is simple. Its not merely that you didn’t do the work. Students and likely many instructors or professors seem to think work in itself is the point. No. The purpose of enforcing plagiarism, even for homework assignments, is that by not plagiarizing you are satiating our expectation for your understanding of the concept. By plagiarizing, however, you provide zero evidence that legitimates your understanding of the concept, and our expectations remain hungry for its validation. A good professor should reward honest attempts showcasing modest understanding, and severely punishing those who dishonestly demonstrate good understanding, but create undue uncertainty about whether our expectations are met. We’re talking “drive your enemies before you and hear the lamentation of their women” punishment.

Guess which case a prayer for mercy is best heard?

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