This morning’s New York Times included an editorial on plagiarism in college, which has become a huge problem in recent years, as the advent of the internet has made plagiarizing work easy. The author (really the author’s friend, a professor), certainly seems to understand what’s really wrong with plagiarism:
As my friend sees it: “This represents a shift away from the view of education as the process of intellectual engagement through which we learn to think critically and toward the view of education as mere training. In training, you are trying to find the right answer at any cost, not trying to improve your mind.”
The thing is, both the author and the professor friend seem to be at a loss to explain why plagiarism is on the rise. (That’s assuming it actually is. I’m willing to believe that it is, because plagiarism is so much easier now, but the editorial gives no evidence.) As far as I can tell, the author blames this problem either on a lack of education about what plagiarism is and why it’s wrong:
Not everyone who gets caught knows enough about what they did to be remorseful. Recently, for example, a student who plagiarized a sizable chunk of a paper essentially told my friend to keep his shirt on, that what he’d done was no big deal. Beyond that, the student said, he would be ashamed to go home to the family with an F.
Or on the rise of a certain “internet culture” among kids which has led kids to view writing as something totally different from what adults see it as:
If we look closely at plagiarism as practiced by youngsters, we can see that they have a different relationship to the printed word than did the generations before them. When many young people think of writing, they don’t think of fashioning original sentences into a sustained thought. They think of making something like a collage of found passages and ideas from the Internet.
They become like rap musicians who construct what they describe as new works by “sampling” (which is to say, cutting and pasting) beats and refrains from the works of others.
But both of these explanations are missing the point (and I’m not sure what evidence there is for the second one at all). College students plagiarize, because the vast majority of them come to college as products of twelve years of training. In school, students are mostly rewarded for finding the right answer at any cost, not for improving their minds. Good grades come from turning in accurate work. Good standardized test scores come from picking the answer that the test writer says is right. We’d like to think that the people who get the good grades have learned (i.e. improved their minds) in order to be able to get the right answers, but grades and tests are a proxy for learning. They don’t reward learning itself. And people who find ways to game the system will often be rewarded. All the morality lectures and all the threats in the world are unlikely to completely overcome years of being rewarded for having the right answer.
I’m not convinced that plagiarism is on the rise because the present generation of college students are immoral, or because college students don’t understand what it means to write. Plagiarism is on the rise, because it’s much easier now to accomplish one’s goals (getting the right answer) by cheating.