Plagiarism is a Big Moral Deal

Stanley Fish argues that plagiarism is not a "big moral deal" because the taboo against passing off someone else's work as your own is just an arbitrary disciplinary convention.

Fish asserts that "the rule that you not use words that were first uttered or written by another without due attribution is less like the rule against stealing, which is at least culturally universal, than it is like  the rules of golf."

Let's concede this point for the sake of argument. The rules of golf are morally neutral. There's nothing inherently virtuous about playing the ball where it lies, that's just what the rule-makers decided would make for the best game. Many of the rules of golf could be rewritten with no moral consequences. There's nothing morally special about 18 holes vs. 19 holes.

However, even within golf, some rule changes would be morally loaded. You couldn't add a morally neutral human sacrifice rule. Rule changes that unfairly disadvantaged certain players would also be a moral issue. The controversy might not get much play outside the golfing world, but it would still be moral principles at stake.

Once you accept a set of rules for golf and start playing with other people who agree to those rules, deliberately breaking the rules to gain an advantage is cheating. Like stealing, cheating is universally frowned upon.

Cheating is a big moral deal. How big a moral deal it is depends to some extent on what's at stake. Cheating in a friendly golf game is sleazy, but in the end it's just a game. Cheating in a golf tournament with millions of dollars on the line, including millions of dollars of other people's money, is a very big moral deal indeed.

Does Fish's tolerance extend to cheating on exams? There's no moral principle that dictates whether a professor should give an open- or closed-book final exam. However, once the rules for the test are set out, students are under a moral obligation to follow them. It's wrong to bring a crib sheet to a closed book exam.

Fish says that plagiarism is an "insider's obsession" that only academics and journalists care about. Intellectual property lawyers would beg to differ. As a society, we're keenly interested in fairly assigning credit for ideas. Even if the only people in the world who cared about plagiarism were academics and journalists, plagiarism would still be a big moral deal.

Fish must be a lousy teacher, and/or extremely gullible. He insists that his students just don't get the concept of not plagiarizing. We're talking about deliberate word-for-word theft of a text here. The example Fish gives in his post concerns several pages from one of Fish's books that somehow got republished nearly verbatim in someone else's book.

Even elementary school children understand that it's wrong to copy your neighbor's work.

Of course, there are gray areas when it comes to attribution. Figuring out whom to cite, and when, is intellectual work unto itself. Fish's students may balk, but mastering the boring bookkeeping aspects of citation is part of learning the craft of academic writing.

Nobody's saying that the arcane formatting rules for referencing an archival photo vs. an unpublished manuscript are moral truths. If you screw up and use commas where you should have used semicolons, or resort to underlining what should have been italicized, you've done a shoddy job, but you haven't acted immorally.

However, the prohibition against plagiarism isn't just an arbitrary constraint like the rules for castling in chess. The plagiarism ban is rooted in moral considerations of honesty and fairness. By putting your name on a paper, you are certifying that you are the author. Knowingly handing in someone else's work is deception. A plagiarist is cheating not only the real author, but also anyone who is competing against the plagiarist for grades, honors, jobs, or other benefits.

[Photo credit: Flickr user karindalziel, licensed under Creative Commons. The frosting is a reference to the PC game Portal.]

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