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My posting yesterday about Stanley Fish’s deflationary remarks about plagiarism elicited a number of nuanced, reflective comments from readers, many of whom are teachers who grapple with the problem of plagiarism on a regular basis.

The comments induced in me a moment of repentance. In his book, Intellectual Appetite , Paul Griffiths sets out to demolish the very basic assumption necessary to sustain the view, echoed by Fish, that plagiarism is theft. Griffiths shows, convincingly, I think, that the notion of knowledge as a possession—as something I can own and therefore can be stolen—is perverse.

I feel penitent, because I wrote Griffiths, criticizing him for demolishing a straw man. People don’t think of plagiarism as stealing, I said. Most see that its a matter of intellectual honesty, not intellectual theft.

I see now that I was mistaken. Many, perhaps most, seem in the thrall of a view that plagiarism is akin to embezzlement or bank robbery.

This can’t be right. As many pointed out in their comments yesterday, it’s very difficult to avoid “stealing,” because writing, at least in most classes in the humanities, involves reacting to and thinking about what others have already said. Indeed, someone pointed out that Asian students are trained to write papers by stringing together paraphrases of lectures or assigned material.

I had an Asian student years ago. I saw what he was doing, which was obviously not an act of academic dishonesty. He was demonstrating his command of the material. But that’s the point. His command, not somebody else’s. If he had paid someone else to write exactly the same paper, then I’m quite sure his teachers in Korea, had they known, would have punished him. Why? Because his paper would have existed solely to perpetrate a falsehood—the falsehood that he had written the paraphrases.

I chuckle when my students anxiously cite me (Reno, lecture 9/5/09). I know what I’ve said, and I can tell when students are using the lecture to try to say something on their own, and when they are paraphrasing me extensively to fill up the five page assignment with the illusion of thought, or more precisely, the illusion that they have had thoughts.

When a student cuts and pastes from the Internet to construct a paper, it’s akin to paying someone else to take the MCAT. It’s not theft. It’s a lie, an attempt to put some form of intellectual creativity, competence, or effort forward as one’s own, when, in fact, it isn’t.

If we see that plagiarism is a matter of dishonesty, then we can free ourselves from the legalistic mentality that seems to be taking hold, fueled, perhaps, by the desire of academic administrators to have “objective” standards that help them evade the need to exercise professional judgment.

A lie requires both falsehood and the intent to deceive. So does plagiarism, which is why bright young freshman who don’t know that they are reinventing Nietzsche or Camus or whatever are not plagiarizing. That’s why my Korean student was not plagiarizing. (I met with him and explained that American education seeks something different from students.)

Unlike Stanley Fish, who likens plagiarism to violating the rules of golf, I think it is a very serious problem, because it has to do with the integrity of communication and the trustworthiness of persons. Education has a moral dimension in large part because there are profound moral dimensions to intellectual work, as there are to all significant human activities. Lying—about what you’ve written, about data, about credentials—corrupts the academic community at a basic level.

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