Friday, February 20, 2009

A Plagiarism Policy

I'm thinking about what some essential elements of an effective plagiarism policy would be. In regard to defining what plagiarism is, I think it is important to emhasize that intention has nothing to do with it and that it can occur even if you reference the source you are plagiarizing. The question is always whether or not the referencing is adequate. So, if you accidentally leave out 'only' the quotation marks, you have still plagiarized.

In regard to punishment, I think it is important to provide a broad spectrum of options. If there is any automatic consequence of being caught plagiarizing, teachers will too often be reluctant to call it what it really is for fear of being forced to punish a student that really just needs become a better scholar. The essential thing is that plagiarism is a sign of poor scholarship, not bad morals. That said, honesty about one's use of sources is of course itself an aspect of good scholarship.

Finally, I think a plagiarism policy should encourage investigators to find out how a particular case of plagiarism came about. But one has to be careful here. Such an account will always be "causal" and causes are never reasons in this regard. There is no excuse for plagiarism. But teachers, supervisors, and colleagues who discover plagiarism in work they are reading should be sensitive to a variety of pressures that lead to poor scholarship. A lack of time is an obvious one, but this (as readers of this blog know) has to be restated as a lack of planning. An orderly writing process is the best policy.

In fact, whenever we discover plagiarism, we should think about the conditions under which the plagiarist is working. What is wrong with the plagiarist's scholarly practices? If you discover plagiarism in your own work, or if one of your peers draws attention to inadequacies in your referencing (they may be too polite to call it plagiarism), think very seriously about how it happened. Don't assume it's a freak accident. Your research practices are supposed to avoid precisely such accidents. The most likely cause is that you are not organized enough.

You may, of course, just be a nasty, lying, cheating piece of work. In which case, damn you. But since I don't know you, I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt.


Anonymous said...

I once had a third year student whose entire essay was paragraphs copied and pasted from articles, with a few of her own sentences in between. Because there was a serious English language issue, it was very obvious to me that she hadn't written 90% of her paper. The student was severely offended when I told her it was plagiarism, so I followed the academic policy. Eventually, we negotiated that she would have to attend a series of workshops on ethics, referencing, and English. But it was a lot of time and work and emotion on all sides. Thanks for talking about this topic.

Thomas said...

"...workshops on ethics, referencing, and English." That's the solution! Plagiarism is is an extreme form of bad writing.