Why is There So Much Plagiarism Right Now?

To put it mildly, the past few months have been a wild time for plagiarism.  

What started with Harvard’s then-president Claudine Gay in early December, later expanded to their Chief Diversity Officer and, most recently, the administrator of Harvard Extension School

However, it has not been much safer outside of Harvard. Neri Oxman, wife of billionaire and Gay critic Bill Ackman, was accused of plagiarism in her dissertation. A New Jersey candidate for Senate has scrubbed most of their website following allegations of plagiarism. Also, an author using the pseudonym John Kucera was accused of plagiarism in dozens of literary magazines and continuing to submit plagiarized works after being caught.  

The stories have also gone international with two Norwegian minsters accused of plagiarism in academic papers and several officials at central banks, including in the Republic of Türkiye and Ghana are fighting allegations of academic plagiarism as well

In short, plagiarism seems to be everywhere and no institution, no matter how venerated, appears to be safe.  

Though it’s easy (and at least partially correct) to blame much of this rise on the weaponization of plagiarism, that weaponization wouldn’t have much impact if the plagiarism didn’t exist, at least to some degree. 

So, what is going on? Why are these campaigns constantly finding new instances of plagiarism? The answer is remarkably simple: It’s because there’s so much plagiarism to be found. 

Poor Writing Skills, Worse Enforcement 

Many of the cases above involve instances where, though the source is cited, significant amounts of verbatim or near-verbatim text is used without quote marks or a different indicator that the text is not original. 

That is a hallmark of poor writing style. We saw this during the Jumi Bello plagiarism scandal, where this site was plagiarized in a plagiarism apology essay. Many authors don’t simply write their own words, they instead copy and paste passages with the intent to edit them and make them “original” through the process. 

Simply put, that doesn’t work and inevitably leads to lengthy passages being used without alteration. While this might sound like a basic error that would be most common among young students or new writers, it’s surprisingly common at all levels. 

That’s because many students were never taught, or never learned, proper writing and paraphrasing. Though the cleanroom writing technique should be a fairly common approach taught to students early on, there’s clearly many who never learned that method of writing.  

When combined with plagiarism detection software putting such a strong focus on specific word usage rather proper writing technique, a lot of works are assembled piecemeal, using a mixture of copied, rewritten and original content. 

By itself, this might not be a huge problem. However, lackluster enforcement of plagiarism policies means that it’s possible for students to go through their entire education without having this issue corrected, even when it should be obvious. 

Though the tools to detect this kind of plagiarism are widely available, it takes time and resources to use them. Those are two things that educators are severely lacking. Many simply can’t or don’t perform these checks. 

But, even when they do detect issues, they often go unreported. Once again, it takes time and resources to address such cases and there’s also a fear about harming a student’s academic future over a mistake.  

As a result, it’s easy for students to develop and maintain poor writing habits, all the way from their first essay to their dissertation. 

A Problem of Scale

While it’s easy to be sympathetic to students who developed poor writing habits and were never told otherwise, it doesn’t change the fact that, at all levels of academia, there are genuinely bad actors who are maliciously and deliberately plagiarizing. 

However, as we’ve seen time and again, the enforcement schemes that are supposed to detect and stop such bad actors fail. This is true both in the classroom and in academic journals. 

Once again, the problem is that no matter how widely available the tools are, the time and energy it takes to check for plagiarism puts a strain on teachers and editors alike. At a time when educators are tasked to do more with less, thorough checks for integrity issues are one of the first things to fall off the plate or get slipshod treatment.

It doesn’t help that it is often unclear whose job it is to check for plagiarism and, even if it is, the person doing the check may not have the needed training and guidance to do it well. Couple that with the aforementioned time constraints and it’s easy to see how so many cases go undetected. 

But, while editors and instructors struggle to find time to address plagiarism and other integrity issues, those hoping to find malfeasance by controversial or public figures have no such constraints. 

Checking hundreds or thousands of papers for plagiarism is a logistical challenge requiring an extensive commitment of resources and time. Checking one person’s work, on the other hand, is relatively quick and easy. 

That, in a nutshell, is why these targeted plagiarism checks so often find issues. Systematic solutions are difficult and costly while targeted checks are relatively quick and easy. 

We never hear about searches that fail to find anything. However, for those doing those searches, the risk is low. It is a minimal investment of time and resources with the potential for a major “win” if something is found. Even if only a small percentage of searches find anything, it can still seem like an overwhelming amount of plagiarism. 

That is why the targeted checks are likely to continue and why they will likely still be making headlines in the months and years to come. 

Bottom Line 

In the end, much of this is a problem of scale. It is much easier to find plagiarism in one person’s work than it is to check a thousand people’s work to find that one person proactively.  

It is relatively easy to check one person’s work for plagiarism. One just needs to be motivated to do it. Whether that motivation comes from an existing suspicion, a personal grudge, a political difference, or something more nefarious, it does not particularly matter. 

However, building and maintaining a system to deter plagiarism on a large scale is incredibly difficult, especially as time and resources become scarcer. This means that well-meaning students do not get their bad habits corrected. It also means that deliberate plagiarists can and do slip under the radar. 

That is, until someone has a reason to look deeper, which they increasingly do. 

Fixing this is going to require systemic change in academia. However, that is something that academia has proven to be very bad at.  

That said, a good place to start would be to emphasize education about the writing process itself, with a heavy focus on citation. Teaching students how to write and how to cite and making those expectations clearer can help separate the students with bad habits from those actively trying to game the system.

That may, in turn make checking for plagiarism less of a burden over the long haul and help make better writers along the way.

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