The Plagiarism Conundrum

The Plagiarism Conundrum

My takeaways from the Lakeland Ledger report: it is very easy to plagiarize unintentionally. I can imagine situations in which journalists would unconsciously borrow ideas, phrases or quotes from another person’s work — easy mistakes to make since reporting is a high-stress and low-sleep occupation. Even though accidentally forgetting attribution is still unacceptable, it is at least understandable.

(Unrelated: I’m curious how the increasing trend of hyperlinking to original sources has changed the attribution dynamic.)

However, I can’t help but to think of the situations of intentional plagiarism. Rule breakers are going to break rules. The points brought up in the Ledger report are moot if a person simply decides to ignore them.

The problem of intentional plagiarist leads me to a rather dismal observation — that cheating is what you can get away with. How do you enforce respect of intellectual property if the consequences of plagiarism, as detailed by the Ledger report, do not apply equally to all plagiarists?

I’m not suggesting that people should plagiarize if they have the power to do so. (I feel like I should say that I personally do not plagiarize, though I suppose a plagiarist would say the same thing.) But I feel like that this problem — that plagiarism pays when you can get away with it — deserves its due attention.

In 2012, around 125 Harvard students in an “Introduction to Congress” class were implicated in a massive cheating scandal, after which about half of the accused were found guilty and were forced to withdraw for at least two semesters. The remaining students were either given “stern warnings” and a note in their academic record or were let off without any penalty whatsoever.

I would have taken such an academic dishonesty sanction as a career-ender. How about Harvard students? An Atlantic Wire piece titled “Harvard Forces Students to Get Jobs as Punishment for Cheating” pokes fun at the students’ sentence to “six months’ hard time in the real world. Before being considered for readmission to the college, convicted students had to hold “a full-time, paid, non-academic job in a non-family situation” for at least half of a year.

I know there was a lot of conversation about how Harvard students were essentially let off with a slap on the wrist, supposedly because a harsher punishment would have tarnished the “ivory tower” of Harvard. On top of that, the convicted students were “forced” to get a job while college graduates with clean academic records are struggling to even find one.

The Harvard case also reminds me of the Fareed Zakaria case and a personal case in which a powerful journalist or organization gets off of a plagiarism charge (relatively) scot free, just because of a stronger financial, societal or legal position. Zakaria is still on television. I don’t want to name names for the personal case, but I can say that a national news organization plagiarized a local news organization, and the local organization was given a miniscule settlement check to avoid legal action — probably because the smaller organization didn’t have the resources to bring about legal action.

Maybe I’m nitpicking about exceptions to the rule when it comes to plagiarism’s consequences. But I don’t think you can stop the cheaters and the plagiarists if there’s a perception that you can get away with it.

Just food for thought.


2 thoughts on “The Plagiarism Conundrum

  1. Hi Bobby — I’m really glad you brought up hyperlinking. The Ledger report is from 2008, before linking stories was particularly common, so no one would have thought to brought it up then. In my mind, that’s a benefit of publishing on the Web. You can “show your work,” so to speak, and I think this has two benefits: One, you are directing readers to where they can go for more information, if they are so inclined. Two, you are attributing the work to the original author/publication.

    Here’s a piece by Steve Buttry (@stevebuttry), who is a smart thinker about journalism. It’s got a lot of hyperlinks 🙂 More important, it lays out the arguments for it. Not to add too much to your reading list, but this is short, and I’d be curious to know what you — and the rest of the class — thinks about this.


    • Hi Lori,

      Thank you for linking me to the Steve Buttry post! I’ve never really thought about the reasons why I hyperlink so it was nice to see the journalistic reasons for doing so written out.

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