Thoughts on Plagiarism

When I was in college, the administration took plagiarism extremely seriously. Any student who was proved to have copied another’s work was severely penalized. I don’t remember for sure, but I think the penalty was being “expunged” – worse than “expelled,” being “expunged” meant that the offender’s admission was revoked and all records of his having attended the school were destroyed. Being “expunged” sounded to me like being pulled out of a drain with a toilet plunger – you were the crappiest crap, so crappy that the college did not want you mixed in with their sewage.

In other words, plagiarism was such a gaspingly horrible sin that during  four years of college I never heard of a single person daring to plagiarize an academic paper.

There was one incident, relating to our student newspaper, that has stayed burned into my mind.

A student copied a piece word for word from the current edition of a popular weekly magazine  . . . and our student newspaper published the review. The offense was only talked about in hushed tones because it was considered so grave and was so embarrassing – primarily for the nature of the offense, but, as a footnote, how stupid it had been to copy something that could be so easily discovered. Rumor had it that only a personal connection between one of our paper’s editors and the publisher of the magazine had saved the student newspaper from being sued. The editor who had allowed the piece to be published walked around for weeks in a depressed fog and no one dared mention the student’s name, the incident, or the word “plagiarism” in his hearing.

As commentators here in the United States struggle either to be the cleverest in excoriating the Trump campaign for its error, or, on the other hand, to excuse or minimize the nature of the offense, we would do well to consider the impact of the public dialog on our younger generation.

Do we want students of today and tomorrow to feel it’s okay to plagiarize? Or do we want to retain the sense of shame and horror that my generation had, before a scandal was something that was erased in the next news cycle?