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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Plagiarism and the massive failure of education

The Argus Leader carries a story today about how Dennis Wiese, former president of the Farmers Union and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, submitted a letter for publication that was not his own work. He claimed that he had obtained permission to use the article from its authors and, therefore, sending it to the Argus Leader under his name was not "illegal."

Dayamn. There are no laws against plagiarism except the laws of honesty. Copyright laws may apply, however. Plagiarism is not a complex and subtle matter to understand. It is simply the passing off of someone else's work as your own. And in colleges and universities the law is observed. If a student plagiarizes, he/she can be failed and even expelled. If a professor plagiarizes, he/she will be fired immediately, and most likely will never obtain another academic job.

When the question of plagiarism gets sticky is in cases where a paraphrase is not clearly attributed to its author, where ideas are similar with some differences that cloud the issue of what is borrowed and what is original, and when a matter of common knowledge needs to be given attribution. These matters might take some thought and effort to clarify, but honest and clear attribution eliminates any question of plagiarism.

Students sometimes plagiarize unintentionally or out of confusion, but over the years, and with the aid of computers, professors have found ways to catch these problems and give the students clarifying instruction when their papers are in the drafting stage. Nevertheless, there are students who are sure that their professors will not recognize an example of plagiarism and will submit a paper or a passage that is not theirs under their names and end up being former students.

My own collection of horror stories deals not with students but with professors. Once after I sat on a promotion and tenure committee and recommended a man to full professorship, which he was awarded, a student and another professor came to me a year later and showed me some materials the professor had printed for use in his class. They demonstrated that the professor had gathered materials together from other textbooks and passed them off under his own name with some vague and confusing acknowledgments in an afterword. The college administration said he could have been clearer but he made some effort at attribution. The textbook companies from which he had borrowed the material, however, said it was out-and-out plagiarism and asked for attribution and compensation. However, the professor quit his teaching job and went off to law school.

In another case for which I had some official duties, a young professor volunteered to help set up a study on grading practices and how they contribute to the success and failure of students. As the school year drew to its end and our committee had not received a report, we inquired if we were to get one. The young professor came in with one at the last minute.

The committee convened to review it. As we sat reading the report, one professor blurted, "Jesus Christ, I've read all this stuff in the academic journals, and this guy is passing this off as his own work." Needless to say, the young professor's contract for the next year was canceled.

As in the first case I cited, colleges and universities often cover up cheating in order to protect their reputations. And therein is a huge failure in the education system.

But plagiarism is not the only intellectual crime committed in our universities. More prevalent but less talked-about ones are the fabrication of data and the misrepresentation of other people's materials. The most famous, recent case involving this resulted in the firing of Professor Ward Churchill from the University of Colorado. Fabrication and misrepresentation are every bit as serious a violation of honesty as plagiarism. But in some quarters it is the standard operating procedure. You can find it occuring daily on blogs and other forms of the new media where it is regarded as cleverness.

The fact that Dennis Wiese would suggest it is okay to pass off someone else's material under his own name because he had obtained permission to use it may speak more cogently to a matter of character, but it may also reflect the serious failures that beset our education system. The sad fact is that Dennis Wiese has a horde of company out there who write with no integrity whatever about what other people have said and written.

The absence of any standards of integrity and probity are what makes the new media so popular. Writers of talent and integrity tend to avoid the new media, not out of elitism but out of the fear of being identified with the dishonest and the scurrilous. Gresham's Law applies to currency: the bad drives out the good. It also applies to writing.


Douglas said...

Daasyymmmm, you were doing pretty well until that last paragraph.

I suspect many writers don't want to write on a blog not because there are some of us who whip up scurrilous dribble, but rather because they don't want their high-tone scholarly or better stuff to be criticised by the SOBs who write comments like this one.

As to Wiese. I think it is unfair to blame the education system for putting something into the ARGUS without attribution. I think it might have something to do with Wiese not viewing it as a form of stealing...even if he was "borrowing" it with permission.

In any case, the column that he plagiarized was filled with moonbeam nonsense. The current immigration bill will be about as useful in controlling illegal aliens invasion of the United States as was the last amnesty, surrender to illegal aliens.

Democrats hope to get Hispanic Votes. Republicans hope to get Hispanic votes and also give their corporate contributors a steady flow of dirt-cheap labor which can help drive the final spike into unions.

The plagiarism was a bit like the illegal aliens' "Your house is my House", but with "Your editorial work is my editorial work" instead.

coralhei said...

I can't speak for what happens at the university level, but I can say I'm trying to eradicate the temptation to plagiarize among my high school students. Montrose High School English students know full well what plagiarism is and what will happen if I catch them doing it.

Remarkably(?), some students still plagiarize. Is that a failure of the education system or of something deeper?

David Newquist said...


At least your students will know what plagiarism and cannot plead ignorance if they practice it.

At the college level, we have seen term papers purchased on line, papers recycled from students many years before, and those where the plagiarism took some retyping, as in the case of the Wiese letter.

There is a deep current of intellectual dishonesty, and in our better education institutions, those who cannot be rehabilitated from that dishonesty are weeded out.

I think will can safely say that Mr. Wiese will never be able to run for public office again or hold a position of trust.

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