Thursday, February 21, 2008

Plagiarism on Campus

Professorial Plagiarism

In 2003, an Alabama judge was censured for placing a Ten Commandments monument in his court house entryway, and the academic elite were prominent among his critics.1 However, if they were clear thinking, they would ask that the granite block be moved to campus and turned so that all could read the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shall not steal.”

Plagiarism, a form of stealing, is rampant among students; college judicial codes give generous space to disciplinary warnings.2 The professors have a big job of enforcement on their hands, but some of the enforcers themselves are unfit to judge anyone. They too are plagiarists.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 40% of 1,200 scholars surveyed believed their work had been stolen at one time or another,3 and there are always new instances to justify their suspicion, whether at Harvard Law School, Parsons School of Design, the U.S. Naval Academy, Texas Tech, or Northern Illinois.4 Examples are plentiful. An Ohio State professor found her own words replicated, without credit, in a Wichita State professor’s account of the first Chinese-American woman doctor. When the Ohio State professor had finished highlighting passages lifted from her dissertation, only one paragraph of the larcenous, 15-page article remained untouched.5 And international boundaries are no hindrance. A Middle Tennessee State professor found that a teacher at the University of Leeds in England had lifted a 1,100-word chunk of his writing for a book introduction.6

It would seem to be a very high-risk enterprise, for the writings are public. Someone is sure to find out, but the pressure to produce is great, and others’ words so tempting. As one Oklahoma State professor explained when he was caught, “You’ve probably heard the old adage ‘publish or perish’? All academics are trying to get their research published. I’m not saying the ends justify the means, but maybe it’s a shortcut, using someone else’s words.”7

The word “plagiarism” comes from the Latin plagiarius—“one who abducts the child or slave of another.”8 The abduction can take many forms. As the Modern Language Association’s Handbook for Writers of Research Papers explains, “A writer who fails to give appropriate acknowledgement when repeating another’s wording or particularly apt term, paraphrasing another’s argument, or presenting another’s line of thinking is guilty of plagiarism.”9

So why do professors think that they can get away with it? In some cases, particularly in the natural sciences, the victims are research assistants afraid to confront the professors who get all the credit for their work.10 But even when the complaint surfaces, universities and scholarly societies are reluctant to follow through. For one thing, litigation is a real threat. The University of Dayton felt the pain when they fired a professor in 1999. He sued for a dozen different damages, including libel, slander, violation of contract, tortious interference with a prospective business relationship, violation of the right to privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy, and violation of copyright. The university won, but it cost them almost $200,000.11.

Academic prowess is no guarantee of virtue. Professors can be as corrupt as the society around them. On and off campus, stealing is epidemic, and the Church is ideally positioned to preach and model integrity: Church finances must be above reproach; sermons must give due credit when others’ insights are repeated; music leaders must respect copyright laws. Right talk, right conduct—an impressive witness in a world where many have itchy fingers.


1 See Kairos Journal article,
"God in the Public Square?"
2 For example, see “Avoiding Plagiarism,” University of California, Davis Student Judicial Affairs Website,, and “What Is ‘Plagiarism?’” Cal Poly Pomona Website,
3 Thomas Bartlett and Scott Smallwood, “Professor Copycat,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (December 17, 2004), A8.
4 Scott Smallwood, “The Fallout: What Happened to Six Scholars Accused of Plagiarism,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (December 17, 2004), A12.
5 Thomas Bartlett and Scott Smallwood, “Professor Copycat,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (December 17, 2004), A10-11.
6 Ibid., A11-12.
7 Ibid., A10.
8 Scott McLemee, “What Is Plagiarism?” The Chronicle of Higher Education (December 17, 2004), A9.
9 Ibid.
10 Thomas Bartlett and Scott Smallwood, “Mentor vs. Protégé: The Professor Published the Student’s Words as His Own. What’s Wrong with That?” The Chronicle of Higher Education (December 17, 2004), A14.
11 David Glenn, “Judge or Judge Not? For Universities, Professional Societies, and Academic Journals, Blurred Responsibility and the Threat of Lawsuits Are Steep Hurdles to Disciplining Plagiarists,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (December 17, 2004), A16.

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