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Plagiarism and Its Effect on Creative Work

Will ignoring plagiarism decrease creativity at the societal level?

Even though the fall semester is still relatively young, my teaching staff and I have already discovered several instances of student plagiarism. This may, of course, be due to the fact that instructors are better able to detect plagiarism now (with search engines and computer programs that compare writing samples to other available work), or this may represent what I fear is a disturbing trend toward an actual increase in plagiaristic acts among college students.

Plagiarism can take several forms: it can include lifting someone else's words from another source and presenting them as your own, or it can include taking someone else's ideas and presenting them as your own without giving appropriate credit to the actual author. Plagiarism is considered a type of academic dishonesty and, for students at the university level, the punishment typically ranges from receiving a failing grade on the plagiarized assignment to expulsion from the academic institution.

Yet some students seem willing to risk these punishments, even though they may be putting their academic viability and future careers in jeopardy. In order to find out why, I've asked the handful of students who have been caught plagiarizing in my classes during past years to discuss their motives. Many tell me that they just got overwhelmed with their coursework and that the capability of reducing their stress by lifting material from an article or essay on the internet was just too tempting.

Others have told me that they've been lifting paragraphs from other sources for years. They never got caught so they were emboldened to continue. And a growing number have said that they don't believe they've done anything wrong, even though institutional guidelines specifically forbid plagiarism. "Everybody does it," is a typical response. After all, they point out, many published authors use ghostwriters, and even the President takes credit for speeches he doesn't write. Really savvy students have pointed out that Shakespeare lifted all the ideas and plots for his plays from other sources, and we don't bring Ol' Will to task for these transgressions.
It's hard to argue against the "everybody does it" argument. Sadly, a teaching assistant who discovered the latest case of plagiarism in our class had trouble determining the original source of the material (which turned out to be an NIMH article) because at least six other sites on the internet (including science blogs) had also copied and pasted the material without citing the source.

Yet discouraging plagiarism is important to all of us who consider creative work and creative ideas to be essential to the growth and health or our culture. Here are some reasons:
First, stealing the intellectual property of others decreases motivation to produce original material across the board in two ways. Even if you have great writing potential and great ideas to share, your motivation to take the time and energy to do so is diminished if you can just purloin other work and pass it off as yours. Also, if someone else is going to take credit for your work without consequence to them, you will simply be less likely to produce further work and put it "out there." When you see others getting credit for your work, you feel violated (as I can attest from personal experience). The result is that at least some people who could make a creative contribution will just throw up their hands and say "why bother?"

Second, failing to cite or reference the sources of ideas or words decreases accountability. It allows potentially false information to be circulated and re-circulated without any way of finding out where the false information originated. This decreases our ability to police and deal with unsubstantiated material that's presented as factual. False information that is widely circulated can damage individuals for sure, but it can also influence have far-flung ramifications that can lead researchers and even entire fields down the wrong path.
Third, attempting to take credit for the work of others is basically fraudulent. A college degree is supposed to mean something. It means that you've gone through the paces and done your share of research, written your share of term papers and exams, and that you know have mastered the skills commiserate with your degree. If you have skated through the process by opting other people's work and passing it off as yours, you likely haven't developed the research and writing skills that are expected of you. You enter the job force with substandard skills, and this may become evident in the work you produce throughout your career.

In all of these ways, rampant plagiarism will contribute to the "dumbing down" of our culture rather than the rise of a Golden Age, which I believe our technology is making possible for us. We need to make a decision whether we're going for the dumbed-down or Golden Age version of the 21st century. If you are a writer, from high school student to internet blogger, please credit your sources. If you're a parent or an educator, please don't turn a blind eye to potential plagiarism. And let your students/children know that honesty in writing is important to both the character of the individual and to the character of the society.

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