Plagiarism is Easy

Plagiarism is on the rise? Because of the internet?

Yes, The Gray Lady* has an article describing incidents of plagiarism that are internet-related. From the article:

at the University of Maryland, a student reprimanded for copying from Wikipedia in a paper on the Great Depression said he thought its entries — unsigned and collectively written — did not need to be credited since they counted, essentially, as common knowledge.

What doesn’t count as common knowledge? Yeah, it’s plagiarism, but so what? It is common knowledge!** Unless the lesson was specifically about how to cite sources to demonstrate an understanding of research methodology (and if it was, the failure to cite wouldn’t be the issue), this objection is no longer a concern.

Why is plagiarism bad? The top three hits for such a Google-based search are for wikiAnswers, Yahoo! Answers, and eHow.com.

The prevailing themes are (in the order of silliness):

1) It’s illegal.

This is like saying speeding is a serious crime because there are serious consequences. It doesn’t address why plagiarism is empirically bad. Such a discussion would justify it’s illegality. If it’s illegal, it’s because it’s theft.Of course, in the case of Wikipedia, it isn’t theft. As for plagiarism that is theft, well, I think blaming the victim is the way to go here. People that don’t want to get stolen from lock their doors. If it was that valuable, you wouldn’t just give it away for a random undergrad to rip off. If it’s on Wikipedia, there’s nothing to protect.

2) It’s Dishonest.

People who are genuinely plagiarizing have to lie about it because such a big deal is made about it, not because there’s anything really wrong with it. People who simply fail to cite a source as in the case of Rand Terrapin above aren’t being dishonest.

3) It “Cheats the Student of Learning.”

It depends on the lesson. For professionals, it doesn’t apply.

4) It’s harmful to the writer’s reputation.

See #1 and #2.

5) It’s self-reinforcing.

So is anything that works. I guess this is bad if the other objections were good enough.

6) It falsely signals something (knowledge/competence) about the plagiarist.

How often does having specific knowledge matter in such time as it can’t be looked up? Imagine a person has instant access to the internet in their brain. The entire contents of wikipedia, as well as limitless other information sources, could be accessed and used at a moment’s notice. In this scenario, everyone would effectively “know” everything they could access. How is it different if it takes a moment to access a computer? I guess it matters if you need a specific piece of information NOW, which, for most people, is never… and for people that do need to have specific information RIGHT NOW, they will certainly have to demonstrate their mettle in a way that precedes some emergency situation.

Does this promote a dependency on the internet? Of course it does, but why does that matter? We don’t object to a dependence on electricity or running water, and the internet is effectively a public utility in the same way. If there was a reasonable expectation that the internet was a fleeting phenomenon that, when shut down, would have no approximate replacement, then this would be a concern. Of course, that isn’t a concern that rational people have at this time.

Back to the Times:

These cases — typical ones, according to writing tutors and officials responsible for discipline at the three schools who described the plagiarism — suggest that many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed. (emphasis added)

… because it isn’t.

Of course the rest of the article is just a bunch of lames worried about their jobs and whining about how the past is gone. They also talk about how plagiarism is laziness. Let’s be honest, plagiarism is laziness… but only if you get caught.

Related: Chris Rock, “A man is only as faithful as his options.” Cheating is easy, etc.

HT: Yglesias

* The Gray Lady is The New York Times. I only starred this because it’s the first time I’ve referred to the NYT as such.

**Enough of all this crap about Wikipedia being inaccurate. It’s more accurate than any encyclopedia ever printed, and kids referring to encyclopedias as sources has always been acceptable.

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