Life After Plagiarism: Forgiveness or Condemnation?

Skull Sample ImageThere’s not much doubt that, in certain industries, plagiarism is one of the cardinal sins. If you commit plagiarism as a journalist, artist, author, academic or similar profession, you can rest assured that, for the most part, your career is over. Virtually no newspaper will hire a reporter previously fired for plagiarism, especially in the current market.

However, plagiarists still have to move on and earn a living. But many find that very difficult as their reputation has often been dragged through the mud in a very public way and, even as they try to change careers, it can be difficult to rebuild trust.

Such is the case for Stephen Glass. Glass was a young, popular and rising reporter at The New Republic in the mid-nineties. However, his fast-tracked career derailed after allegations of fabrication, plagiarism and other journalism ethics violations began to surface. After a thorough audit of his articles, some 27 of his 41 articles turned out to have ethical problems.

Glass has attempted to move on, graduating in 2000 from Georgetown University with a law degree, Glass has tried, unsuccessfully, to be accepted to the bar in both New York and California, even after passing both of their bar exams.

The reason: Questions about his character due to his past.

But as Glass takes his case before the California Supreme Court, tough questions are raised about what should happen to a plagiarist after the scandal is done. Should plagiarism be a life sentence and, if not, when do we forgive and move on?

Finding a New Career

While it’s true that most famous plagiarists never work in their original field again, most do find good jobs elsewhere. Kaavya Viswanathan, who was a young rising star in the field of “chick lit” lost a two-book deal after it was revealed that her first book contained large amounts of unattributed copying. She has since gone on to graduate law school, also from Georgetown, and reportedly was heading out for a high-profile internship in 2010.

Likewise, Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter who resigned in 2003 after it was learned many of his articles contained plagiarized material, has moved on to become a successful life coach and a play inspired by the scandal, though not involving Blair directly, has also been cast.

However, even when a plagiarist is able to move on, the allegations and accusations continue to haunt them. For example, when Joe Biden was named now-President Obama’s VP candidate almost immediately the world focused in on allegations of plagiarism he had allegedly committed some 21 years earlier.

In short, while plagiarists may be able to move on and find new careers, the spectre of their past always seems to be haunting them. Most people will never know Kaavya Viswanathan, Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass as anything other than plagiarists (and fabricators in the case of Glass).

Is that right or fair? It’s tough to say.

When Do We Forget?

Plagiarism, fundamentally, is a lie, an act of deception where one presents the work, ideas and creativity of another as their own. In many cases, this deception can be very brazen and direct, an attempt to lie to, quite literally, the whole world. Many feel that one who is capable of that is capable of such a grand deception is capable of lying about other things and that they shouldn’t be trusted, at least not fully.

As such, plagiarism is a lot like being convicted of another crime but, in many respects, worse. Rob a bank and get caught, you’ll serve your time and get out. Lead a clean life long enough, you may be able to get your record expunged or, at the very least, no longer be required to report it when you apply for jobs. However, for a plagiarist, often times the accusation is a life sentence. People don’t forget and, with the Web’s perfect memory, they likely never will.

Is that they way it should be and, if not, when does a plagiarism allegation become irrelevant? When should we forgive, forget and move on?

There are no easy answers to that and, to make matters more complicated, every situation is different. A student who plagiarizes an essay in college is, obviously, different than a reporter that plagiarizes dozens of articles in a major newspaper.

Also, the field the plagiarist chooses to move into has a major role in determining how long the allegations hang around. Both Glass and Biden went into professions (law and politics) where their moral character would be directly tested and scrutinized. Others, like Blair, who chose different paths faced less resistance.

All of this, however, makes it impossible to set an expiration date on a plagiarism allegation. There are no easy answers here, especially with the Web making everyone easily Googled, but they are questions we’re going to have to deal with moving forward.

Bottom Line

To be clear, it isn’t must big-name plagiarists like Glass, Blair and Viswanathan that suffer from these issues. I routinely get letters from lesser-known plagiarists who have been featured on this site that are asking to have their names removed. I haven’t removed any yet, though I often wonder about when it would be appropriate to do so, if ever.

Simply put, plagiarists, as a practical matter, do have to move on. They have to work, pay bills, put food on the table, etc. the same as everyone else. How they do that, however, is a difficult question.

All in all, when it comes to plagiarism, there is too much conversation about the scandal itself and not enough about what happens after, something I am as guilty of, if not worse, than anyone else.

So maybe it’s time to think more about these issues and what should be the path forward for a “convicted” plagiarist.