is plagiarism really so bad?

There has been a lot of talk recently about the huge issue of plagiarism among students. Ars Technica had an article about it on 20 October []. I have also heard the issue discussed on radio talk shows, and been lectured on the consequences of being caught plagiarizing by almost every professor I’ve ever had.

The problem of plagiarism, though, is not new – it’s just easy now. With millions of articles, essays, and papers on thousands of topics just available for the snagging online, it’s not really a surprise that more and more students are engaging in this form of cheating. It’s also not a surprise that teachers are catching these acts of defiance more and more readily. Back in the good ol’ days, when to plagiarize you needed to copy by hand from a printed text without citing it, it was at least a time-consuming process. But no more. Now, it’s as easy as selecting the chunk of the paper you want, and copy-pasting it into your own document. Maybe you’re even nice and do a little bit of paraphrasing so it’s harder to distinguish from your own real writing, but it’s still cheating.

I’m going to wax a little preachy here, but the benefits of plagiarism are only very short-lived. Sure, if you don’t get caught, you get a decent grade. But graduating on lies won’t help you in the real world. Unless you’re planning to do something that requires no honesty, like being a drug dealer, or already have more money than you’ll ever need (there’d be a nice problem), you’re going to get caught. You might make it all the way through school and the early days of your job without anyone noticing, but eventually someone’s gonna realize you can’t do what your grades led them to believe you could.

I had a student once plagiarize my work in a programming class in NY. My professor came up to me after he handed the assignments back and told me what happened – someone copied what I had done and submitted it as their own work. What got them caught was that they forgot to change the ‘written by’ comment I had in the program (none too clever on their part), and my professor gave them a 0 on the assignment. His typical policy was to take the number of identical submissions and divide the grade by the number of identical submissions, and give that grade to each submitter. This gave an incentive to both the cheater and the cheatee (or sometimes the cheaters) to not cheat because all the grades would be affected.

Thankfully, I’ve never had a legitimate temptation to cheat on a test, paper, or project. Most of the time it was because I knew the material better than the other students, so cheating wouldn’t help. Other times it was because there were too few people in the class. But mostly it’s because there’s no substitute for real work.