I do my writing in a local coffee shop. When I’m sitting in their uncomfortable aluminum chairs eating fluffy scones and sipping the house blend, I wrestle with my keyboard. I drudge up ideas, type some thoughts, erase them, start over, delete delete delete, and kvell over a paltry two-hundred and fifty words. Striking the save key is the greatest triumph. My chosen profession means I’ll be writing about injustice in society, and I’m fine with that because I am a writer. That’s what I’ve always wanted to be.
On those coffee shop days, I would never dream of borrowing another person’s words and fitting them in with my text, aligning their style with mine, and misappropriating their voice for my own. I could not imagine anyone doing that, but it happens all the time. I’m seeing it increasingly in my teaching with students, and I wonder why they resist thinking for themselves and resort to using someone else’s thoughts.
We give the current generation of college students far too much credit when it comes to technology. Digital tools have always been part of their educational experience but that does not mean they are tech savvy. The plagiarism I’ve caught has been but a google search away from discovery. Little subterfuge, it seems, is necessary. Yet, somehow, students feel like this is an appropriate solution for poor time management, misunderstanding the assignment, or worse, good old-fashioned laziness. In a survey of 1,055 college presidents in the US, the Pew Center found that over half of them report plagiarism in student work is on the rise and close to 90% of them say the internet and technology are involved. It’s a thing.
And the plagiarism industry is certainly not new. Paper writers for hire have probably been around as long as professors have been assigning papers. Just for kicks, I searched for term papers online and discovered that there are actual sites distributing papers for free! Some scholars, though, are tired of playing bad cop, and I am with them. But then, should we look the other way?
As a sociologist, I often wonder about the social construction of rules or laws. People decide the norms, and people decide on the sanctions for those who breach the norms. The process has a social component. In this case, think your own thoughts, or suffer the consequences. The consequences of plagiarism are also socially constructed, and full of red tape, I might add. Simply ignoring instances of plagiarism would make my professional life less stressful, but ignoring them also makes a mockery of my professional life. If I can simply use another person’s intellectual property as my own, what’s it all worth, anyway? In another industry, like the recording industry, battles are waged over a small riff in a musical interlude, whose voice is dubbed, or who performs live in concert.
Academia is no different from any other creative industry. Dishonest academics steal intellectual property all the time. Sometimes they even steal from their graduate students. For shame.