April 24, 2013

Plagiarism Education Week fails other moral tests


Originality matters. But money matters more.

This week is Plagiarism Education Week, an admirable idea, and certainly useful after the past year, which saw a number of high profile plagiarism scandals—in fact, so many that Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today had a difficult time picking a “top 5” in his summary of the year’s worst offenders. See him in this video, working his way through the runners-up (half of the students in Harvard’s “Introduction to Congress” class, Raquel Velasco recycling articles between the East Valley Tribune and Arizona State University’s State Press) to the biggies: Jonah Lehrer, Fareed Zakaria, Canadian columnist Margaret Wente, German Education Minister Annette Schavan, both the Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta and the Education Minister Ioan Mang, Hungarian President Pal Schmitt, and others.

I like the site that’s been put up for the week, Plagiarism.org, with its handy little ideograms for the different types of plagiarism (the “CTRL-C”, the “Hybrid”, the “Re-Tweet”) and its definitions of fair use, copyright, and other occasionally confusing concepts.

But I’d like it a whole lot more if the site weren’t plastered with ads for a company, iParadigms LLC, that makes tools that detect plagiarism, notably Turnitin, iThenticate, and WriteCheck—tools that iParadigms sells to institutions for prices that aren’t listed on the website and to individuals for $50 a paper.

It seems obvious to me that if you’re going to try to explain the ethics of borrowing someone else’s ideas and passing them off as your own, then you shouldn’t muddy them by making putting those ideals into practice a cash cow for a single company, or multiple companies. This is not an arena for cherry-picking, for encouraging students to act morally while behaving immorally yourself. Worse, it suggests to students that they don’t have to do the intellectual work to determine whether or not they have plagiarized; they can just buy a program to do it for them. Though, for all the language on Plagiarism.org about educating students, I think it’s mostly hot air: students know when they’ve plagiarized, even if they’re sometimes unsure about how much they should be citing. It’s the teachers who are ever more responsible for detecting plagiarism—and their university budgets—that iParadigm seems really to be after.

This is a conflict of interest, and it’s something that the sponsors of Plagiarism Education Week, who are listed on the site as Plagiarism Today, the School for Ethical Education, and the International Center for Academic Integrity, should have been aware of and refused to put their names on. Funding one company’s already extremely cushy bottom line in name of higher principles is the exact and total opposite of academic integrity, and not what students should take their cues from.



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.