Plagiarism: do students learn it from their teachers?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, March 9, 2002)

Doris Kearns Goodwin, an American author of formerly unimpeachable character, has been struggling to maintain her dignity while dealing with the ugly revelation that her 1987 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, contains plagiarized material. She's withdrawn from the Pulitzer Prize board of judges, taken indefinite leave from NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and tried to seize the initiative by confessing to even more plagiarism than anyone else has detected. Not only does her book contain passages lifted from Lynne McTaggart's Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times; Ms. Goodwin says it also borrows from several other sources.

Her embarrassment resembles that of Stephen Ambrose, whose reputation was eroded when it emerged that The Wild Blue, his book about Second World War bomber crews, contains passages lifted from Wings of the Morning, by Thomas Childers. Ms. Goodwin and Mr. Ambrose have explained that these were merely mistakes and will be fixed in later editions. The New York Times, in a compassionate spirit, has employed a wonderfully Clintonian euphemism for literary stealing: "inappropriately copying."

Ms. Goodwin and Mr. Ambrose learned their trade in graduate school, where they were supposed to absorb the ethics of attribution. But the university world is also increasingly afflicted with plagiarism. At the University of Toronto the Independent newspaper has been boiling over with stories about a highly controversial incident that hinges on what precisely constitutes plagiarism. If the particular student involved turns out to be guilty, that will be only one of about 200 cases Toronto detects each year. Carleton University reported 50 in one recent academic year, the University of Alberta 70. No doubt far more students escape undetected. But of course they escape only in a dubious sense: They obtain acceptable marks and a degree they will always know is partly bogus.

If plagiarism has increased among both professional writers and students, there's a common cause, the industrialization of knowledge. Writing and teaching have become less like crafts and more like industries. Instead of working alone, writers and teachers now tend to break their tasks into component parts and piece them out, like manufacturers. Ms. Goodwin, with three researchers full-time and one part-time, operates a small word factory. This increases productivity (Mr. Ambrose and his helpers have produced eight books in five years) but diminishes control.

Meanwhile, the universities, with too many students taught by too few professors, spread the work to underpaid teaching assistants. Again, productivity increases and control declines. When professors lose touch with students, plagiarism becomes harder to notice; the best plagiarism detector is a teacher's intuition.

In 1995, Harper's magazine scandalized academic Toronto with an article, "This Pen for Hire." Written by a confessed academic ghost-writer under the pseudonym Abigail Witherspoon, it depicted a squalid little corner of academe where rich kids hired poor kids to churn out customized essays. In 2001, Abigail's story reads like an artifact from ancient times. She worked in a cottage industry, before her customers had access to vast Internet resources. Today university graduates often sell their old papers to online agencies, "paper mills," which then re-sell them to other students, all major credit cards accepted. A paper submitted at McGill this week may have been written four years ago in Oregon.

The University of Alberta's Faculty Guide to Cyber-Plagiarism reports that the Internet makes cheating easier. It urges teachers to print out an essay purchased from an online paper mill and discuss it in class, to demonstrate that teachers know about Internet fraud and about "corresponding plagiarism detection services."

That's a reference to search programs designed to fight the paper mills. One agency, PlagiServe (which operates in Ukraine) claims it can tell whether any given paper was purchased. Its Web robots crawl the world, monitoring paper mills, buying their products. PlagiServe guarantees it can eliminate cyber-plagiarism.

The Kimbel Library in South Carolina has compiled a list of 150 paper mills, all named something like Dr. Essays, DueNow, or Genius Papers. Those I've checked are not, so far as I can tell, run by the sharpest knives in the academic drawer; some operators are as dim as the students they serve. If you ask Papers4Less to provide an essay on Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War, it reports proudly that it has 33 papers available. Unfortunately, several of the 33 concern another Johnson, Samuel. Still, the prices are low, US$3 to US$20.

The up-market Paper Store declares on its site that the material it sells is "only to assist students in the preparation of their own work." This resembles the contracts written by escort services stipulating that the prostitutes they manage are forbidden to engage in sex. Paper Store has a site selling Aristotle essays exclusively. You can buy four pages on Aristotle and the Nicomachean Ethics for US$39.80 but a more complicated piece, relating the Nicomachean Ethics to abortion, runs eight pages and costs US$79.60. You want quality, you pay for it.

As it happens, it was Aristotle who gave the best advice on this matter. We learn virtue through practice, he said. To become a builder, you build. To become just, you perform just acts. "We are what we repeatedly do." Excellence is not an act but a habit. Cyber-plagiarists learn, in a sophisticated way, the ancient habit of fraud. Next they will learn how to explain, when caught, that it was all an accident.

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