The Newby Plagiarists In J-schools

By: Michael J. Bugeja

Some college officials have seen “a sharp increase in students cutting and pasting material into papers from Web sites without attribution, or purchasing term papers from online term-paper mills,” The Chronicle of Higher Education stated July 6. Checking for plagiarism may soon become “a routine part of grading,” the Chronicle noted.

E&P sounded the alarm about plagiarism in a Jan. 8 editorial, “The newby plagiarism,” that chastised journalism schools for sending out interns and graduates who pilfer other people’s work. I warned of that trend in a March 2000 issue of E&P, discussing what I call “the new breed of plagiarist” — computer-savvy word thieves who steal brazenly and, when caught, claim ignorance.

Because of search engines, catching a plagiarist has never been easier. If you would like to know how professors at Ohio University do it, check out this Web page posted by our Office of Judiciaries: http://www.ohiou.edu/judiciaries/plagiarism.htm.

In today’s electronic campus environment, offices of judiciaries are adjudicating more cases of plagiarism than ever. But there is a new wrinkle. In the past, proof of plagiarism sealed an offender’s fate. Suspension — and, in severe cases, expulsion — was the norm. Now the newby plagiarists have conceived innovative ways to circumvent such punishment, and their excuses can be as brazen as their thefts.

“I didn’t know what I did was wrong,” a student might claim. Another might contend, “I meant to cite the passage, but forgot.” Editors may scoff at such alibis, but they are more clever than they appear.

A student who honestly did not intend to plagiarize may still be held legally liable. All one has to do is prove the plagiarism. But, from an ethical perspective, upon which many judiciary outcomes are based, absence of intent is a mitigating factor.

That’s why the terminology of plagiarism has become increasingly important in academe. Many hearing officers and professors do not know the concept of “plausible deniability,” for example. This empowers plagiarists who can argue intent convincingly.

Before home computers and the Internet, most plagiarists at least changed the wording. When accused, students typically invoked “coincidence” to explain away similarities between source and target documents. As the wording was similar but not exact, coincidence was a dubious yet plausible excuse in the absence of hard evidence.

Since most plagiarism cases now are Web-based, where source documents are readily available and easily copied, “coincidence” no longer is a factor. The chances of randomly selecting identical wording — even for one paragraph — are, literally, astronomical. Thus, the defense of plausible deniability had to change as professors became more skilled in using search engines to catch plagiarists.

The new breed of plagiarist claims “ignorance” — an argument that holds up even in the presence of hard evidence.

How can a professor refute the claims — “I didn’t know what I did was wrong” or “I meant to cite the passage, but forgot”?

While claims of ignorance may be true, especially if they involve footnotes or citations, few plagiarists invoke the “coincidence” defense anymore. It has all but vanished from judicial proceedings.

Ignorance about what constitutes plagiarism may seem plausible in a technological age. However, such a defense pales when associated with the concept of “conscience,” indicating one’s value system. What does ignorance say about a journalism student’s values when he or she claims not to know that word-theft was wrong?

Further, “ignorance” is closely associated with “negligence.” That concept involves whether one should have known that one’s actions were wrong. Negligence, as a legal precept, typically invites swift and severe consequences — especially in libel cases.

Plagiarists may be prepared to argue ignorance. But they usually are caught off guard when their accusers embrace this dubious defense and connect it to concerns as serious as plagiarism: faulty values and potential liability.

Moreover, journalism schools can easily banish this ignorance by requiring noncredit remedial course work in media ethics, emphasizing such values as truth, accountability, and social responsibility — values that define our profession.

In any case, before journalism students work as interns, they should be introduced to the risks of plagiarism and alibis of ignorance. Such lectures will serve as a warning to potential offenders contemplating the newby plagiarism excuse.

That alone may reduce the number of plagiarism cases and add an educational element to the debate, preventing problems before they get into print.

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