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Created: May 12, 2003
Latest Update: May 12, 2003

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Site Teaching Modules The Slippery Slope of Ethics

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, May 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.

This week the New York Times fired a reporter for plagiarism. I know that we make a big deal out of plagiarism in school. And I think we're wrong for that. Classes are so large now, stress so high, particularly at middle-to-working class universities where students are working and taking on family responsibilities while they try to keep up a full load of classes. Sometimes they make a mistake, don't change the material into their own words enough to satisfy their teacher and PLAGIARISM looms.

The line that separates plagiarism from poor rephrasing of ideas is fuzzy. Academics and professionals sometimes disagree over that line. And students who often cram in far more work than is sane for a semester are exhausted. Those of us who follow the health disciplines actually worry about sleep deprivation amongst our students. I have, on occasion, sent home a mother of three because she was falling asleep in class. And she had to drive twenty minutes on a freeway to get home!

When that single mother is so tired that she will risk her life to get to class and turn in her work, I worry that we have lost sight of our overall perspective to educate you. Education includes gaining the wisdom to understand when you must take time out to rest, for our sakes as well as your own and your family's. Education includes gaining the wisdom to know that tired and exhausted people sometimes forget quotation marks, forget a reference or two in a long paper. They may do it as much because their eyes are crossed as with any genuine intent. And that's a lesson for the academy to learn. We are so sure that "plagiarism" is "cheating" that we immediately assume that our students are criminals with the worst intent. Not so.

That doesn't mean that some don't cheat. That's always been the case. When temptation knocks, some people leap to response. Think of Enron, folks. But most of my students aren't Enron executives. They're tired and struggling and really want to get an education because it's empowering and fun and it feels good not to have to behave like a puffed up bull frog so people won't notice that you don't know what you're talking about.

So I pray that each of you will read the New York Times' Editorial comments on this incident, and try to imagine what happened right along with the NY Times staff. There are clues all through the long article that the young reporter was tired. Wonder why? There were leaves, there was counseling. Enough? And then finally there really was plagiarism and fraud.

The NY Times staff has done a lot of self-examination here. They're asking themselves, "Where did we go wrong?" They're trying to see that it never happens again. They are accepting responsibility for a reporter that went wrong. I understand a Dean of Journalism even suggested that the young reporter go back and get the degree he had never finished, but allowed the paper to believe he had completed. I wish our schools would take the same serious responsibility for all of us who work and study within them. Punishment does not work. Thorndike eventually recalled his second law of learning and said punishment doesn't work. So why do we still think in terms of criminality and punishment when we are dealing with learning? The NY Times takes responsibility for the need they felt to educate and socialize this young reporter.

The article is all from the perspective of the NY Times. The reporter of course was fired, and did not take part in writing this article on his firing. But I'd like you to try to imagine that reporter, in his late 20's, talented, wanting desperately to make it, and ultimately scared enough to take the slippery slope of prevarication and copying. What clues can you find in the article as told by the Times staff? What clues can you draw from your own experience?

Then think in terms of the stress we all feel in the postmodern commuting university. May his lived experience remind you that you need to rest; rest strengthens the immune system against false choices. You have to build networks of friends and mentors; networks take up the slack when you need to stop the world and get off for a while. You have to develop interrelationships of trust, for without trust we are alone and may ultimately succumb to that loneliness.

I wrote a prayer I hope will help if you'll keep it near wherever you work into exhaustion:

Now I lay my paper down to rest
I've done it all, my very best

If my teacher should find a passage
I didn't scramble up to par

I pray he'll understand I tried
To say it over in words I know

But if I failed, I hope he'll see
It's hard to learn and work and be

And give me the chance to fix it right
And finally get to sleep tonight.

Discussion Questions

  1. Plagiarism is clear cut and easy to recognize. True or False?

    Consider the number of accusations that have come down in recent years against popular historians who write very long books, with the help of paid assistants to check on footnotes and citations, and end up being accused of having copied passages from someone else's work.

    Also consider that avoiding plagiarism means successfully restating the other's ideas in your own words. Sometimes it's hard to do, especially if you've just read the other's work or have it in front of you. Take a break of at least a few hours and come back to your paper before you try to rephrase someone else's ideas. And don't forget to give credit to the person whose ideas you're using. Do that with a footnote or endnote.

  2. Plagiarism is a crime. True or False?

    False. Plagiarism is a tort that someone can sue for if you have taken their words and sold them or used them in an advertisement to make money or some such thing. That's a civil offense, not a criminal offense.

    But if the school expels you for plagiarism, then that's kind of equivalent to a criminal offense, isn't it? What do you think about that?

  3. Why do I call it the "slippery slope" of plagiarism?

    Consider that in law we speak of a slippery slope in the sense that once you get close to a fuzzy line, like what is plagiarism, in its subtler forms, it's easy to just slide right down the slope and lose sight of the complexity involved. Is it plagiarism if your paid assistant is sloppy and misses a quote? Is it plagiarism if you fell asleep over your paper and forgot a set of quotes? How close do we want to go towards criminal behavior from mistaken and sloppy behavior?

    Also consider that once you've started to lie to cover up some inadequacies or stress or fear or whatever, then the next lie is easier, and easier, and easier . . . the slippery slope again.

  4. Why should the school reconsider its approach to plagiarism?

    Consider that most students today do not get enough writing practice and that our major goal is to teach, not punish. Also consider that students are not selling the words they have taken, unless they had the intent to do so. Many students don't understand plagiarism sufficiently to intend subtle plagiarism. Hey, if you just copy someone else's work, you know that's wrong. That's way down the slippery slope, and that's not what we're talking about here.