Why Plagiarism Matters

I had been considering writing about whether former Harvard President Claudine Gay should have been selected a little over a year ago or should be fired now, but her resignation has made both questions moot. Nonetheless, accusations that she plagiarized by incorporating sections of other scholars’ work without attribution into her own doctoral thesis and subsequent articles (which I will call duplication without attribution) warrant discussion of the harmful impact of plagiarism by both university students and faculty. Gay’s short tenure and resignation as President have raised so many other political and cultural issues that the question of plagiarism might be overlooked.

Plagiarism by Students and Faculty

Most university students want to acquire knowledge that will allow them to pursue a chosen career, and term papers and exams are required to demonstrate mastery of that knowledge.

Plagiarism on term papers is comparable to cheating on exams in that both are intended to increase the student’s grade beyond what is warranted by their knowledge, the proverbial case of a D student getting an A on a course. Term papers and exams are seen only by the professors and TAs who grade them and the source of plagiarized material is not harmed. Other students are harmed only to the extent that the plagiarizing student marginally raises the class average, and their grades are slightly lowered relative to that average. (However, if most of the students in a class plagiarized, the minority who didn’t plagiarize would certainly be harmed.) When students who have plagiarized or cheated on exams enter the working world, their clients will suffer the consequences.

Scholars are engaged in the collective enterprise of knowledge creation. They do this by studying each other’s research and, hopefully, improving on it. Newton’s famous comment about “standing on the shoulders of giants” is relevant here. Attribution is the standard practice for acknowledging other scholars’ work. Not acknowledging a work you have consulted disrespects the colleague(s) who wrote it. Duplicating the words of a text without attribution is even more disrespectful. There is also a consequence for the scholar(s) whose work is plagiarized. Google Scholar gathers and counts citations and its counts are used in assessments such as tenure and promotion reviews. Plagiarism is thus a denial of recognition with a consequence.

Furthermore, research is intended to be useful to anyone who reads it, whether a beginner or an accomplished scholar. Attribution is valuable because it enables the reader to check the author’s sources and thus learn more. This is a second way in which the lack of attribution diminishes the collective research enterprise.

In addition to the altruistic arguments against the lack of attribution, there is a self-interested argument in favour of attribution. In the double-blind review process, editors often choose reviewers from the scholars whom an author lists in their references. But the editor might also choose someone whom they know has expertise but isn’t on the list. That reviewer might be upset that their work hasn’t been included as a reference. Therefore, the politics of academic publishing favour compiling a longer rather than shorter list of references.

How to Avoid Duplication without Attribution

It follows from the previous section that scholars should provide attribution to works they consult. But, like many other areas of life, such as diet, exercise, and sleep, developing good habits makes it easier to do what is right.

The first step is doing a thorough literature review of everything that might be relevant to your research project. And you should keep track of every book or article by making notes and putting them all in a file.

Paraphrasing the essence of an article’s argument or contribution in a sentence or two takes more time than quoting from it but ensures that you have a deeper understanding.

I have always found it easier to write using in-text references than footnotes because including the author’s surname and date of publication doesn’t interrupt the flow of your writing as much as writing footnotes, especially if you have to include reference information in the footnote. Most fields of study, including the humanities, have now moved to in-text references.

After writing a section of an article, I collect the names of all the authors to whom I’ve referred and enter their works in my reference list. I find this busy work a relaxing respite from the harder work of writing. I know other colleagues who assign this task to research assistants. But the important thing is that you’ve compiled a complete reference list.

Claudine Gay’s Puzzling Narrative

In a New York Times op-ed about her decision to resign, Gay writes, “My critics found instances in my academic writings where some material duplicated other scholars’ language, without proper attribution. I believe all scholars deserve full and appropriate credit for their work. When I learned of these errors, I promptly requested corrections …” What puzzles me is her denial of agency. Wouldn’t Gay have known that she had duplicated other scholars’ language? And wouldn’t she remember whose research she referenced and whose research she didn’t? Is she saying that she only realized she had made mistakes when someone pointed that out to her? Is she implying that these mistakes were made by research assistants and that she therefore isn’t responsible? She is using the classic language bureaucratic denial of responsibility – “mistakes were made” – in reference to her own scholarship, not the action of someone six levels below her. I realize, however, that in the context of a bitter and humiliating defeat, Gay would not want to admit that this aspect of her research had been slipshod (and likely her lawyer would so advise her).

Few scholars will be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as Claudine Gay has been. But the lesson we should take from her experience is to imagine that we could be. If we do, we will avoid duplication without attribution, give our colleagues credit they are due, and scrupulously and conscientiously contribute to the creation of knowledge.

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