When plagiarism comes out, stand your ground

The recent case of the president of Hungary does not involve any transgression of journalism ethics. Yet plagiarism is a plague in our high schools and universities — in every country around the world, so far as I can tell. As a journalist and an educator, I consider this an ethical issue for everyone.

We all know plagiarism is wrong. The students who do it know — full well — that it’s wrong. But when they are caught, they claim they didn’t do it, or they didn’t know. They always beg to be let off, free from consequences. As a university professor for more than 12 years, I can assure you their excuses are dead wrong. Wrong, in every case. Lies. Because they knew what they were doing when they did it. They only thought they would never be caught.

You can’t copy 16 pages by accident, let alone 180 pages (see the Hungarian case). It’s absurd to say so.

I was surprised, but very happy, to learn that Semmelweis University, Budapest, rescinded Hungarian president Pal Schmitt’s doctoral degree after finding evidence of extensive plagiarism in his dissertation. Even though his doctoral dissertation was accepted in 1992, and that’s 20 years in the past, I support the university’s decision.

That case called to mind an essay I read recently at the website of The Chronicle of Higher Education. The essay did not concern plagiarism at all, but as I understood it, it called for a lowering of academic standards at U.S. universities.

The idea expressed in that essay was this: Graduate students from Africa tend to select universities in Australia, Britain, Canada and France — instead of the United States — because the entrance and graduation requirements are less demanding in those other countries. The author suggested that different standards should be applied for applicants from Africa (because they don’t get a high quality of undergraduate education there).

I think that standards are standards, and you don’t drop your standards just because someone is not able to meet them.

Lower standards are exactly what we support if we go soft on people who plagiarize. If we accept (or forgive) plagiarized work — if we say too much time has passed (like 20 years) — and forgive the dishonesty of those writers, then we demonstrate that others can get away with it. If we believe someone who says he or she didn’t know, we tempt them to do it again.

The CHE essay notes that “Africans consider an American education one of the best in the world” — if that is true, it’s because our universities have a reputation for high standards.

The expectation of writing (academic writing and journalism writing) is that something original will be produced, and all parts that are not original will be sourced, attributed, connected to their points of origin. This is a good standard, I think, and I want us all to uphold it.

4 Comments on “When plagiarism comes out, stand your ground

  1. How does one determine what is original when most of what is written is a remix of what others have said?

  2. (1) When there’s not much attribution, start Googling. (2) For all student work, use TurnItIn. (3) Trust your instincts. Even amateur writers have a voice. If it doesn’t ring true, if it seems inconsistent, run a phrase through Google. (4) Require full name, e-mail and phone number for all sources in news stories, and spot-check them. (5) Put draconian penalties in your syllabus, and follow through. Mine are that a student fails the course for any infraction, no matter how small, and it will be officially reported to the Dean of Students, meaning it goes into the student’s record.

  3. As the editor of my alma mater’s student paper, I saw plagiarism come in many forms. Students seemed to approach writing for the student paper as nonacademic (even when receiving class credit for their published articles), which I was never able to reconcile before graduating. In one case after reporting a writer to our advisor/journalism professor, the writer gave up, dropped the j-program, and blamed the staff member who caught the misdeed.

    Have you experienced this, my-fellow-students-won’t-care, attitude toward plagiarism?

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