Chronicle Prints Plagiarist’s Confession

Though I don’t normally cover matters that solely affect the academic world, the Chronicle for Higher Education, a leading educational journal, published an article by an anonymous graduate student using the pseudonym “Michael Thompson” who admitted to plagiarizing works by foreign authors for his dissertation.

Even though the author wound up removing the plagiarized parts from his dissertation, Thompson’s tale offers several lessons that are applicable to all plagiarists, whether they are in the classroom, in print, or online.

The Elephant in the Room

Thompson’s actions were never discovered. Though he removed the work, in the end, because his professors said that the plagiarized portions were weak, they never caught on that the work was not original. Not only had he chose foreign authors as the target of his plagiarism, but he modified the work to make it almost undetectable, even if one had read the original.

The ease with which Thompson escaped punishment points to a fact that educators know all too well, that most plagiarists never get caught. Thompson referred to this as the “elephant in the room”. Because, no matter how hard instructors and Webmasters try, they can only stop the laziest and least capable plagiarists.

Worse still, as synonymizing software and other automated forms of text manipulation become more reliable, plagiarists will have to put less and less effort into masking their sources. Where once hiding plagiarized elements might have taken longer than writing an original work, it can now be done almost instantly.

What it’s going to boil down to is educators working hard to create plagiarism-resistant assignment and the development of more fuzzy-logic search techniques that can detect at least some manipulation. When you consider that, even the most advanced search techniques can be thwarted by simple manipulation, the problem becomes clear.

The Why’s of Plagiarism

The article also sheds some light onto why people plagiarize and, though Thompson said that his reasons were “related to conditions of life that many graduate students would find all too familiar,” most of them seem to fit excuses given by all plagiarists, including those online.

The main one given, pressure from juggling too many responsibilities, can be said about almost anyone who runs a site (or three) while working full time. Being disillusioned with academia, another reason offered, could easily be translated into being disillusioned with whatever topic the site is on, copyright law or even life itself. Disillusionment is part of being human and can happen to anyone with anything.

One reason, however, didn’t make much sense. In the article, Thompson attributed some of it to his dire financial situation as if, somehow, it’s cheaper to plagiarize than to write original work. Since stealing content and researching it legitimately costs the same, it seems to me to be more of a play on emotions and a call for pity than a real excuse. If my encounters with other plagiarists are any indication, this is not an unusual tactic.

In addition to offering such a nonsensical reason, he failed to mention one of the more obvious causes of plagiarism, a lack of confidence in one’s own writing. While this may or may not have played a factor in his decision to plagiarize, it’s definitely one of the more common reasons given by plagiarists of all variety. It would be interesting to probe deeper into this issue and how it affected his decisions.

In the end though, the article does provide some valuable and personal insight into the reasons (or excuses) for plagiarism and writers who want to get into the minds of their plagiarists will find the article an interesting read.

The Scary Part

However, I have to strongly agree with Profgrrrrl when she says that “It rubs me the wrong way to think that this [the fact the plagiarized material was considered mediocre] could be the reason why he’s decided plagiarism is wrong.

The entire article, over 1300 words of it, made not one mention about why plagiarism was wrong or made any attempt to apologize for it. The bulk of the article was spent explaining what he did, why, and discussing how hopeless it is for professors to stop plagiarism, almost to the point of bragging about how easily he got away with it.

One has to wonder what would have happened if the stolen portions of his dissertation had been heralded instead of planned? Would he have still removed the infringing works or just left them in to taint his entire work.

Even the anonymous nature of his confession makes me doubt his sincerity. His professors, as he points out, are still unaware of what transpired and probably never will be, despite going public with his story. As much as I’d like to believe that his intentions are pure and he simply wants to sound the alarm on an important issue, his actions point more to a combination of guilt relief, bragging and justification as his motives.

In that regard though, the letter is more of a snapshot into the mindset of a plagiarist than ever before. Guilt-ridden, but unrepentant. They know, at least on some level, that what they’re doing is wrong but try to excuse their actions or explain them rather than face what they’ve done. In that regard, the plagiarist shares more in common with your average criminal than a misguided author.

It’s a sad distinction, but a fact of life that must be faced.

[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, Copyright, Copyright Law[/tags]

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