Thursday, September 2, 2010

I hope nobody copies our pro-plagiarism stance

It's been a few days since we did an academia column, so, in today's Dear Prudence, a question about plagiarism!
Dear Prudence,
I am a graduate student who is finishing my master's thesis. For inspiration, my professor suggested that I look at the thesis of a student who graduated last year and tackled a similar topic. He said it was of the quality that I should be aiming for. I got the thesis and found that most of it is plagiarized word-for-word from a book that I have been using as a source. The subject is rather obscure, and I would not expect my professor to be familiar with the plagiarized book, but I still can't believe that the student got away with it. I don't know what to do. On one hand, I feel it's none of my business, but on the other, I feel the school should know. I also can't help but think that if I don't speak up, during the grading process, my paper will be compared to his, which actually was written by the master in this field.

—Just Want To Graduate
Prudence's anti-plagiarism stance is unsurprising and probably practically and morally correct.
...[N]ow that you have discovered this violation of everything scholarship is supposed to stand for, you must expose it. Take the book and the thesis and highlight a generous selection of relevant passages. Bring it to your professor and explain that as soon as you started reading the thesis, it was obvious it was a work of plagiarism. Let's hope this prompts an investigation and a stripping of this young man's graduate degree.
Probably unsurprisingly to reader(s) of this blog, we take a more, um, morally liberal view of cheating.

Lulu: I can't bring myself to get that incensed about plagiarism.

Ashley: I know I'm supposed to care, I just don't. It's the same with any kind of cheating.

Lulu: From a teacher's point of view, I see how it defeats the purpose, and the school absolutely has a right to try to catch and punish you, but if you can get away with it--I mean, that is a transferable skill.

Ashley: Cheating is how things get done at a job! Rules in academics are stricter than in real life. It's like with programming. Everyone Googles for what they need and cut and pastes other people's code, and that's standard practice in a professional environment, but you'd get in trouble if they caught you doing that on a test.

Lulu: Maybe it's less emotionally charged, because when you get down to it, it's a set of instructions. People don't feel like they put their personality into it. I can see being upset if someone got a lot of money off a story I wrote.

Ashley: I thought you only wrote fan fiction.

Lulu: Okay, a lot of comments. Is an academic work more like a novel or a computer program? Personally, it feels to me more like a computer program: it's to get a job done (convey information), it's not personal and original in the same way as fiction or a memoir. I can imagine feeling differently, so I see why some people get upset. But I do think the consequences of plagiarism allegations in universities outweigh the seriousness of the crime.

Ashley: I don't know if they'd really strip him of his master's. A PhD maybe. They might not want to deal with it.

Lulu: This could really screw him over, though! And there's no way the LW can find out ahead of time. "So, hypothetically... if a master's student were to plagiarize... NOT ME..." I don't think the student actually has a moral duty to protect the plagiarizer, but I also wouldn't want destroying his credentials to be on my conscience.

It depends I guess on how wrong s/he thinks the crime is. Ethically, there is an argument to be made on both sides, but  it would be hard to separate an honest moral opposition to plagiarism from the desire to stick it to the adviser. "Hey, you know that thesis you wanted me to look at? Plagiarized!"

Ashley: I can, but only because I'm morally bankrupt. I would not turn that person in UNLESS I'm sticking it to the advisor. I see no reason not to turn someone in for plagiarism if their plagiarism makes your life difficult. I wouldn't turn someone in for cheating at a test, because I think I will do well enough anyway, but I can see why someone would, if there's a curve.

Lulu: The LW does seem concerned that the thesis wrecks the curve.

Ashley: And, in this particular case, the plagiarism is just so bad. He could have put a little effort into making it less obvious! So I don't feel super bad about turning him in.

Lulu: You think he deserves to be turned in for his poor craftsmanship?

Ashley: Precisely. Put effort in your plagiarism, that's the lesson! It's really an art.

Lulu: We should never be hired to write The Ethicist.


  1. Snitches get stitches!

    I don't even think this sounds like particularly sloppy plagiarism, depending on your particularly plagiaristic style. While you could make it difficult to trace by carefully lifting ideas and phrases from your sources, at that point you might as well just be writing your own paper. And that is stupid!

    My preferred method (in theory) is to find an area that whoever is going to be grading your work doesn't know much about, and then choose an obscure work in that field to rip off wholeheartedly. Know your mark, and your work can be sloppy. It sounds like this guy cheated his way fair and square to a graduate degree.

    Either way, if the LW wants to ruin somebody else's cheating because they can't figure out a way to cheat their own way to glory, they should be stabbed in the eye and then probably punched in that eye.

  2. As the resident grad student, I have to say you are all SO wrong. Of course I am someone who can easily become incensed about plagiarism. I am working on a MA thesis and I teach English.

    Anyway, a MA thesis IS really personal, it is not like a test where you are supposed to show you know things. It's your contribution to a field.

    Which means a few things:

    1.) If you have to plagiarize it means you lack a personality. You have no ideas, so you need someone else's. It is nothing like stealing code because it's functional, and everything like pawning off fiction or other creative work as your own because you wish you were cool enough to have written it. It is something only a lame person would do, and it is not the ethics of it I take offense to. It is the lameness! Grow your own damn thoughts or start writing computer code.

    2.) it is a bit foolish that this adviser does not know this star thesis is plagiarized. your adviser SHOULD be an expert in the field you are writing in, so darnell's trick should not be easy to pull off. if this guy is unaware of this stellar piece of criticism, that is a little weird.

    3.) as you do rightly mention, YES, if you are being held to the standard of a student who is cheating, that's totally bogus for you and you have every right to point that out. it is entirely a consequence that the cheater has brought onto his own head by cheating.

    ok, enough for today.

  3. oh, and also: