The Problems with Plagiarism

by on January 2, 2013 in Reflections with No Comments »


Plagiarism is the most serious offense in academia. Its definition—the undocumented use of another person’s work—is straightforward, and its maximum sentences for an offense are draconian: expulsion for students, termination for professors. If the stakes are so high, why would anyone risk plagiarizing another person’s work?

Plagiarism in college

The college students that I work with, as either their teacher or tutor, often speak of the constant pressure to succeed. In order to get a decent job or get into graduate school, they need good grades. To get good grades, they need to keep up—and perform well on—their assignments. But since they’re taking five classes, they are overloaded with work, and, inevitably, they prioritize, directing their energy toward some classes and away from others. Sometimes, this means nothing more than giving slightly less than 100 percent effort, like composing a “B” paper instead of doing the typical “A”-worthy job. Other times, it can mean taking drastic shortcuts.

Throughout my experience as a teacher and a tutor, I’ve found that, when it comes to citations, a student is likely to take that shortcut. He may have learned, at some point in high school or college, that he’s not allowed to copy down an author’s text without giving it proper attribution, and that he’s not supposed to write a lengthy summary of an author’s book or directly quote long passages of text without citing them, but he’s pressed for time and might forget to cite or dismiss citing as an unnecessary formality. And, anyway, what if what the author wrote was a fact? Why should that be cited? This other question takes us into the heart of the problem with plagiarism: many students see it as a hazy gray area, while teachers and administrators treat it as a black-and-white issue.

So, too, does the publishing world—but with a wrinkle. Let’s look at two fairly recent examples of plagiarism, where each reveals how publishers handle such cases.

Plagiarism in publishing

The first case is that of the journalist Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer, who is 31 years old, wrote about neuroscience in a way that made complicated scientific topics easy for the layperson to understand. He kept a blog at Wired magazine, published successful books, and, last June, was hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker. Though Lehrer published original work, he also was caught recycling his own sentences and paragraphs—self-plagiarizing, in other words. He apologized and was allowed to continue writing for The New Yorker. Within a few months, however, Tablet magazine published an article that accused Lehrer of fabricating Bob Dylan quotations in Imagine, Lehrer’s most recent book about the neuroscience of creativity. This time, Lehrer apologized and resigned from his magazine job. Then his publishers halted the sale of Imagine, pulling all copies from shelves and online stores. Lehrer has not published any work since.

Just around the time that Lehrer was resigning from The New Yorker, Fareed Zakaria was being cleared of any wrongdoing for his plagiarism. Zakaria, Time magazine’s editor-at-large, wrote a column in which he borrowed heavily from an article in, coincidentally, The New Yorker. Like Lehrer, he apologized and admitted he made a “terrible mistake.” Like Lehrer, he was suspended by his employers (Time and CNN). But unlike Lehrer, he was allowed to keep his jobs. Why did this happen?

Here is the difference. In the case of Jonah Lehrer, the initial claims of material recycling and self-plagiarizing prompted deeper inquiries into his entire body of work. One such inquiry, commissioned by Lehrer’s editor at Wired and eventually published in Slate, yielded astonishing facts—that Lehrer had been guilty of various forms of plagiarism, from recycling his own material to stealing material from press releases to relying on questionable quotations and facts, in many different articles. In fact, the journalist who conducted the study noted that Lehrer had been recycling his own content since 2008 “and probably even earlier,” and that “it’s amazing—and disturbing—that it took so long for anyone to notice.”

Fareed Zakaria’s work was subjected to the same sort of analysis (though the details of the methodology were not made public). The result? A spokesperson for Time said that the magazine reviewed “each” of his columns in a “thorough” manner and came away “entirely satisfied” that “the language in question . . . was an unintentional error and an isolated incident for which he has apologized.”


Both of these examples offer us insight into how plagiarism is viewed in the 21st Century not just in publishing but in academia. First of all, it is refreshing to see that, in an era of hastily composed blog entries, which can provide the foundation for major book deals, the publishing world still holds its journalists and commentators accountable for borrowed, unattributed work. With these standards in place, we can assume that the most sacred of all information—the truthful, first-hand reported news source, whose importance to a globalized world can never be understated—is subjected to the same, if not more, rigorous treatment.

But now, perhaps more than ever, we recognize that plagiarism’s parameters are blurry, and that they are investigated on a case by case basis. The publishing world draws the line between those who knowingly and repeatedly borrow and recycle other’s (and their own) work, passing off every written word as an original idea, then play coy about their methods, and those who make an honest mistake, acknowledge their error, and serve their punishment. In my experience, I’ve found that the academic world does this as well. At MCNY, most of our students’ biggest project is the Constructive Action. The CA relies heavily on personal information (e.g. plan of action and critical logs) but also on outside sources (the literature review). Students must work with instructors and tutors to fully grasp the concepts of each, so that recycled material and incorrectly cited sources are treated with integrity.


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