Why Plagiarism Matters

To ignore high-level cheating is to tear down the rule of law itself.

Over the past few years, numerous plagiarism scandals have rocked the world of higher education. Prominent public intellectuals and university scholars have been caught improperly citing passages or even straight-up wholesale copying from other scholars’ works in their academic writing. The most high-profile of these scandals involved Claudine Gay, the former president of Harvard University. She resigned her position under pressure due to her academic misconduct, which involved lifting quotes from other authors and not attributing other writers’ work.

Many of Claudine Gay’s supporters were quick to minimize her actions. For example, D. Stephen Voss, associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky (and one of the people Gay plagiarized), dismissed her actions as “no big deal.” It’s a fairly common practice, and she only borrowed a few words, Voss argued. If Gay’s behavior is no big deal and (as the series of scandals shows) is indeed a fairly common occurrence in higher education, why waste so much digital ink discussing it?

Colleges need to uphold moral standards, including respect for the property of others.The problem is that “borrowing” the words written by others and passing them off as your own is dishonest. It’s intellectual theft. Colleges and universities need to uphold and exemplify moral standards, including respect for the property of others. Plagiarism cannot be allowed any more than more tactile forms of stealing.

I contend that Gay’s behavior is a big deal. In fact, Harvard University itself seems to think so. The university’s own guide to freshman students on plagiarism states: “When you fail to cite your sources, or when you cite them inadequately, you are plagiarizing, which is taken extremely seriously at Harvard.” Voss’s statements aside, Gay’s mistake is an important failing and must be treated that way. Why? Because the rule of law matters.

It may seem odd to discuss “law” in this context. Law is typically associated with legislation, the official acts of a government to prohibit or prescribe certain behaviors. Legislation may be part of law, but I am using it in a broader sense: the set of rules that govern a society. Law provides the foundation for a society to grow. Humanity appears unique among animals in that we created law to restrict our own individual behavior in order to promote our overall wellbeing. (Space requirements prevent me from getting into a detailed discussion on the uniqueness of law, but for those interested I highly recommend James Buchanan’s The Limits of Liberty and Bart Wilson’s The Property Species.) Included in this definition of law are the rules that academia (one such society) has established to govern itself. These rules recognize the importance of giving others credit where credit is due, hence the rule against plagiarism.

Rule of law refers to the idea that everyone, regardless of rank or station, is subject to the same standards and judged by the same bodies. In the context of academia, it means that everyone, from a university president to a freshman student, is held to the same standards of academic integrity. What is taken “extremely seriously” for one group must be taken “extremely seriously” for all others. If the same action results in punishment for one group but is dismissed as “no big deal” for another, we have a breakdown of the rule of law.

Law is, ultimately, a public good; everyone enjoys the benefits of just law. When law is upheld, behavior becomes predictable, and the conditions for societal flourishing come into play. But when law is selectively enforced, when it is arbitrary and capricious, basic standards break down, and everyone is made worse off. The law becomes a tool for injury rather than justice. What penalty there is for violations of the law (in this case, plagiarism) will vary, of course; punishment will also need to be just. But there must be punishment for the violation of the law, regardless of who violates it.

To the extent that Claudine Gay’s behavior is common, it points to a widespread culture of corruption, favoritism, and elitism in academia. Our students are routinely punished for plagiarism, up to and including expulsion. Every university, from Harvard on down, holds explicit discussions forbidding the kind of plagiarism Gay conducted. What does it say to our students when we punish them for something that’s dismissed as “no big deal” when one of us is caught? It says: If you’re an elite, one of the Chosen, then you can get away with what ordinary folks are destroyed for. Rules are only for common folks, not the elite.

If you’re an elite, one of the Chosen, you can get away with what ordinary folks are destroyed for.There is a kernel of truth here, however: Plagiarism mistakes by students are common. I see them in rough drafts all the time. That is one of the reasons I assign rough drafts, to catch these errors before they manifest into something that must be reported. They are common among undergraduates who don’t know any better. 

The Harvard guide I quote from above is a guide for freshmen. We, as professional academics, must be held to a higher standard than 18-year-olds who have limited experience in academic writing. Not the same standard: a higher standard. We’re supposed to be trained to avoid these sorts of errors. We’re supposed to be trained to identify and correct them long before they are published. We’re supposed to be the pinnacle of academic excellence.

The sorts of lazy excuses offered by Voss and others morally cannot hold water. The fact people offer them suggests the academy is failing in its most basic duties: the unwavering search for truth, the education of the next generation, and academic integrity. By offering these excuses with a perfectly straight face, those academics are demonstrating the corruption and the utter failure of higher education.

These plagiarism scandals are the symptom, not the cause, of the decline of academic prestige. Academics must be held to a higher standard than our students. Our actions directly affect them. The value of the degree they have when they leave our doors is directly tied to our (and their) actions. Consequently, students are the ones who call for the harshest punishments for cheaters and plagiarists. Seeing, at my various universities, reports from disciplinary committees (which are often made up of both faculty and students) and speaking to other faculty, I find it is the students who recommend the harshest penalties for those who violate academic-integrity codes.

Students are very quick to inform on anyone they suspect of cheating. They know that if the plagiarists and cheaters get away with it, that cheapens the value of their degree. There is an injustice done upon them; they are injured by the behavior of others. And the law’s job is to prevent and correct injury. Faculty are both the enforcers and the exemplaries of that law.

Jon Murphy is an assistant professor of economics at Nicholls State University and a fellow at the Institute for an Entrepreneurial Society at Syracuse University.