Dear Parent: Learn Why Your Kid Shouldn't Plagiarize

Does it hurt anyone if your child "borrows" an idea or two from the Internet?

Posted Dec 18, 2012

When I bought a copy of Cliff’s Notes in 1971, I remember hiding the slick yellow and black pamphlet under my jacket as if I were hiding a piece of hard-core pornography. I was fourteen, old enough to know better, and fearful that someone I knew might have witnessed the purchase.

The book I didn’t bother to read on my own was something by Dickens--I can’t recall whether it was A TALE OF TWO CITIES or GREAT EXPECTATIONS and I simply could not grasp hold of the plot. The teacher was tough. I was afraid of not doing well. I was kept busy by all kinds of after-school projects and baby-sitting jobs; buying a cheat-sheet (as we called them) did not seem to be a terrible thing to do. And shame was familiar to me.

After all, I spent most of my teenage years being ashamed of something. I was ashamed of not being clever or being too clever; I was ashamed of looking stupid or of looking like a show-off; I was ashamed of my need for independence and ashamed of acting like a big baby.

Looking back however, buying the Cliff’s Notes is something causing me shame still; the rest I've overcome with growing up and therapy. I'm not ashamed of who I was back then, but I'm ashamed of what I did. The stinging humiliation of using somebody else's work and passing it off as my own still makes me wince.

As it should.

For students today, the lure of plagiarizig and the temptation to cheat might appear overwhelming; it's at the fingertips, at their keyboard.

There are wonderful things waiting to be discovered on the Internet.  Because of the Internet old friends have been able to look you up via your website, you’ve located precious books you otherwise never would have been able to find, and you’ve found decent hotel rooms in NYC where a weekend rate adds up to only half of what you’d spend on a small foreign car. Terrific.

Then a colleague tells you, in passing, that she has found unfortunate yet unequivocal proof that some of students are buying papers off the Internet. She mentions some sites to look up if you want to see what’s going on.

Late one night you decide to check out the stolen-paper material your colleague has mentioned. You’re amused by the very idea of doing something illicit--this should be really funny. Probably a few very old papers on King Lear. Maybe a couple titled  “Foreshadowing in 'The Scarlet Letter'.”

Unsure of the precise protocol, you type in “term papers”--or words to that effect--and suddenly it’s like you’re at the casino. Your otherwise staid and modest computer immediately lights up, whooping and hollering as if you’ve hit what must simply be the world’s most implausible jackpot. A term paper site! Who knew that there was such a thing!

And then you see there are thousands of them and then you stop laughing.

It becomes both scary and clear. Here is everything the profoundly lazy, over-worked, under-inspired, and over-achieving student has been looking for: thousands--no, tens of thousands-- of essays and papers, researched articles and personal responses, two-to-twenty-page commentaries on any subject (you name it) from  “Albatrosses in the Ancient Mariner” to “Zealots in Zimbabwe.”

But this is awful. With your jaw slack and your heart pounding as if your old love-letters are being read aloud by Daniel Tosh, you see topics you could well have assigned. “Death and Rebirth in 'Dracula" and ‘Twilight’” for example, is an eight-page paper that comes complete with a bibliography. Even books that you’d think students might pick up for the sheer pleasure can be avoided and discussions of them purchased: there are papers on J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, and Stephen King as well as papers on Chaucer, Defoe, and Woolf.

It doesn’t stop with English Lit... You can copy out a paper on ethics. Seriously. You can even download heartfelt personal essays. For example, you can offer to your teacher a copy of “The Career of a Photographer,” described invitingly as a “four page, creative, and well-written essay in which the writer details his love for photography--both as a future profession and as a hobby.”

Doesn’t that sound a little, well, personal to you? Well, the personal essay is paradoxically enough a genre wholly adaptable to plagiarism, at least as far as the 'Net goes. You can buy a Personal Statement about (and I quote) “My Commitment to Classroom Teaching,” described as “providing a unique and convincing rationale for entering education as a profession.” Want to hand in an essay on what it was like to be at the latest inauguration based wholly on eyewitness accounts? Piece of cake--just logs on and clicks “copy.” Does it matter that you were in Miami or Boise when the writer of the piece was supposed to be scribbling these notes in DC? Guess not. The implication is that no one will care--or notice.

Ah, but I notice. I bet you'd notice, too. And I bet you, dear reader, would want to act on it if you saw a kid shoplifting intellectual material.  I could hand back in-class writings from the students I’m teaching this term based on their vocabulary “tics” (one always uses “that” when she doesn’t need to) and their stylistic quirks (one ends her sentences with exclamation points to the point of rhetorical hysteria!!).  I know my students--and if they suddenly started offering essays entirely and indubitably written in voices different from the ones I’d heard in class, read in earlier assignments, or listened to during office-hours, I would wonder who they were channeling.  I would hand back the paper in question and say straight out: “HA HA HA! Obviously you were making a big joke here. Let’s see the actual paper. Right now.”

In talking to the student, I would be serious because this is a very serious business. You can’t get away with it in business: there are copyright laws. You can’t get away with it in science: there are patents. You can’t get away with it in marriage: there is divorce. You can’t get away with it in most classes: teachers pay attention.

The deliberate practice of taking something that is not your own and passing it off as something that is should not be rewarded with anything except shame. That's a lesson worth copying out.