The Mind of a Plagiarist

Some student plagiarists are out of their depth in college and panic-stricken in the face of a writing assignment, especially when it has to do with analysis of books that impose an adult-level intellectual challenge. These are the plagiarists of desperation.

Other plagiarists might or might not be out of their depth in college, but they are less desperate than calculating and cynical; in all likelihood they had no intention in the first place either of doing the reading or of writing the assignment on their own.  These are the plagiarists of willful blatant dishonesty.

Perhaps there are other types of plagiarist, but the two large categories account for most.  They have in common a wildly mistaken certainty that their cheating will escape detection.

That mistaken assuredness signifies what might be called the epistemology—distinguishing it from the morality—of the plagiarist.  Of course, plagiarism is firstly a moral transgression, combining theft and fraud, but the brazenness of the plagiarist comes from his cold confidence in the ability to deceive a supervising party. 

The sources and structure of that misplaced conviction are worth examination.

The plagiarist, whether panic-stricken or calculating, reacts dumbly to his own deficit of literacy. The panic-stricken plagiarist is equally unable to read Silas Marner or to write coherently in response to it.  That is clear.  The calculating plagiarist, for his part, never nourishes the intention either of reading the book or of writing about it. He might vaguely intuit that Silas Marner is beyond him, as is the task of producing competent paragraphs that comment on the novel; but he also thinks these tasks beneath him

The panic-stricken plagiarist might write his own term paper if he could; the calculating plagiarist willingly chooses subterfuge as a method for bluffing his way through the formalities of higher education without actually doing any of the work.  He is a shirker.

Neither the panic-stricken nor the calculating plagiarist possesses a notion of prose style.  He might know that his in-class prose, which he cannot plagiarize, receives low marks; he might even know, from instructor-comments, that his low marks have to do with his lack of grammar, restricted vocabulary, and hopelessness in forming arguments.

He will know those things, however, only as verbalisms, as explanations that for him clarify nothing.  Supposing even that he examines a paragraph from Silas Marner or from a critical article on George Eliot, he will not be aware that Eliot’s prose or the article-writer’s differs from his own. On a less exalted level, the plagiarist cannot tell the competency of an editorial-page newspaper column from the incompetence of his blue book scribbling. One written page is much like another, as he sees it.  The quality of his incompetence, if not the judgment about it, remains opaque to him.

The plagiarist has likewise no sense of the social distribution of knowledge, of what someone in this station as opposed to that is likely to know; nor has he any sense of the character of the professional allusions and references that differentiate, let us say, the language of an historian of strategic bombing from that of a Shakespeare scholar.

Most tellingly, in selecting passages to copy, the plagiarist cannot distinguish between what he is wildly unlikely to know and what might pass muster.  How could he?  He has never grasped the connection between knowledge and formal study, between the act of reading and the sequel of knowing.

It never occurs to the plagiarist, therefore, whether panic-stricken or calculating, that submitting someone else’s prose under his own name might alert a wary reader that shenanigans are in play.  It never occurs to him that a vapid three-sentence paragraph of his prose, with simplistic sentences, bad grammar, and misspellings, when followed by a paragraph in a competent writer’s professional prose will create a sense of disjunction in the very party whom the gesture aims at defrauding.

The style of Cliff’s Notes, for example, is a rather insipid style, but it is a style. As such, it is distinguishable from other styles and, in its bland way, recognizable. The same could be said of the endless Internet prose from websites designed, sometime gratis, sometimes for a fee, to obviate the student’s academic duty to produce written work on his own.

In the mid-1990s, in the context of a night-course offered under an extended learning program, I collected a batch of papers on the topic of Ernest Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and the Sea.  One of those papers, by a student who to my knowledge had never responded in class with anything other than a petulant, “I don’t know” or “I forget,” began with what I expected: badly written, primitive sentences with no discernible thesis.

The next paragraph, six or seven sentences in length, with some of the sentences employing two or three subordinate clauses, was immediately suspect, beyond its syntax, in its vocabulary and references.  There was, for example, a learned-sounding invocation of the atmosphere of early Christianity.

This happened before the convenience of an Internet Google-search, so confirming my suspicion of plagiarism meant a spell of dreary work in the library-stacks.  My morning-long library investigation in fact turned up no smoking gun, but in a bookstore later in the afternoon, I saw in a corner one of those rotating book displays of Cliff’s Notes.  I opened Cliff’s Notes for The Old Man and the Sea and there before me was eighty per cent of the fraudulent document, including the reference to the atmosphere of early Christianity.

The student denied malfeasance, insisting that any resemblance between her paragraphs and those in Cliff’s Notes must be a fantastic coincidence.  In conference with an assistant dean she maintained that absurdity, but could not explain the erudite references in “her” paper.  The dean then produced Cliff’s Notes and the case was closed.

It is easy to forget that as recently as ten years ago, proving plagiarism required of the instructor-plaintiff a good deal of clerical effort.  Even on a small campus with a restricted library, where the possible sources of cheating were limited, thirty bound years of the Proceedings of the Modern Language Association or an equivalent scholarly journal meant hours of investigation. Probably a good deal of suspected plagiarism escaped confirmation simply because the instructor foresaw that the labor necessary to prove the charge outweighed the value of pursuing it.

A punitive grade might still be justified on the grounds that the suspect essay did not really address directly the given assignment, or that it lacked references.  I remark, however, that in those cases the original plagiarism itself required a certain amount of work-like diligence.  With technical progress, plagiarism has become the most alluring of the lazy student’s probable academic misdeeds.

The Internet, as already mentioned, offers a cornucopia of downloadable temptations.  In the meantime, the typical prose-competence of the typical first-year student at a state college—as report after report testifies—has continued to decline. The opportunities for becoming panic-stricken have multiplied many times over. 

Although I cannot give scientific evidence for it, I believe that the percentage of calculating plagiarists has also increased, but the calculation remains as unwise as it always was.  It still rests on the plagiarist’s ignorance of his own ignorance, his inability to recognize the specificity of his own incompetence.  At the same time that plagiarism itself has become easier, the ability to detect plagiarism has also become easier, another reality of which the plagiarist himself has not the faintest inkling.

Even a fairly esoteric topic such as Henrik Ibsen’s play Emperor and Galilean—which I taught in a course on modern drama recently—when entered into the Google browser, yields close to eighty thousand results. On the first page there are at least a half a dozen essayistic commentaries on the Norwegian playwright’s Symbolist tragedy. At the end of the semester, I collected a strongly suspect term paper in response to an assignment that asked students to compare a number of modern plays, including Emperor and Galilean.

If there were such a thing as an intelligent or well-educated plagiarist, the idea of a careful patchwork of paragraphs, culled from various websites and rewritten to make the style homogeneous and framed within original prose that endowed on the whole something like a convincing structure—that, I say, might occur to him. But if the plagiarist were intelligent and well educated, if he were that capable, he would probably not be a plagiarist; he would be an honest student who acquits himself in courses.

In the case of the Ibsen plagiarist, two facts worked together to arouse my suspicion.  One was that I could neither picture the student nor connect her to a single comment made in any classroom discussion during the semester.  She had effectively not participated in the course. 

The other was the prose itself, which contained no references to my remarks made during the term (student writers invariably rehearse instructor observations), and which had a bland competence little resembling student expression.  In one instance, a paragraph began with a long appositive, a rhetorical device I have never known any student to employ.  In addition, the prose indicated knowledge of Ibsen well beyond what I had sketched in lecture in the two weeks set aside for Emperor and Galilean.

It took thirty seconds to type the provocative appositive into the Google browser, whereupon I double-clicked the first item and immediately beheld that selfsame front-loaded construction.  The entire paper, save for a single introductory sentence, had been blatantly downloaded from the website, without alteration.

As in the Hemingway case, the Ibsen plagiarist, although caught red-handed, stubbornly denied her guilt. There was something perversely comical about it. Like the other student, this one expected, first me, and then the dean, to whom I reported the violation, to put down as a fantastic coincidence the word-for-word identity of the prose over which she had put her name with that from Uncle Harlan’s Down Home Ibsen Website (or whatever it called itself). 

This was calculating plagiarism of the most barefaced species, with complete absence of acknowledgment in the transgression and absolutely no sign of remorse.  The student’s written communications with me were indignant and sub-literate.  At one point she held it against me, as she wrote, that, “you are my only one professor that says I plagiarized.” 

In a separate case, a different plagiarist compulsively confessed to the offense and submitted written apologies to me and to my department chair.  The chair and I were sufficiently moved that I merely failed the assignment. That student passed the course with the lowest possible grade, on the strength of other work. This was a panic-stricken plagiarist who showed keen, believable remorse.

The Ibsen plagiarist, in contrast, was a self-serving con artist, a superlative cynic.  My instinct was to fail her in the course, which the dean in fact insisted I should do. I hardly required persuasion.  What happened to the Ibsen plagiarist beyond flunking Modern Drama?  I cannot say.

On my campus, plagiarism is an issue, about which everyone talks all the time.  The administration recognizes the problem and asks that all cases be reported to the Dean of Students.  There is supposedly a “three strikes” rule in place.  Any student reported for plagiarism three times faces punitive action, but what action specifically is not, as far as I know, stated.  Perhaps there is a range of options.

An irony in the case of the Ibsen plagiarist is that the student was an education major getting ready to begin her student teaching.  Justice would have been served, in my opinion, by reporting the incident to her department and beyond that to the institution where she was about to discharge her practicum.  I doubt that this happened.  Thus a plagiarist goes into the classroom to be a teacher.

Plagiarism is one more index of the long-heralded Decline of the West.  More and more students go to college; fewer and fewer of them are actually capable of rising to the higher learning.  Colleges and universities, operating by the enrollment economy, actively seek students and bend or ignore admissions criteria to recruit them in numbers.  Aggressively cynical and uncivilized, the popular culture promotes crass self-interest and narcissism.

The sitting vice president of the U.S.A. once, when a senator, plagiarized a campaign speech from his British member-of-Parliament counterpart, but he is the sitting vice president of the U.S.A. The epistemology of plagiarism is worth describing, and I have tried to do so, but ultimately, it is necessary to repeat, rampant plagiarism is an alarming moral problem.  The destruction of shame makes theft and fraud thinkable options for an increasing number of students.