My class syllabuses explain that “the default penalty for plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty is failure in the course.” Since, alas, few of my students are COMMENTARY subscribers, I can confess here that failure on the plagiarized assignment, rather than in the whole course, is typical. Still, the College and I take plagiarism seriously. We have a three-offenses-and-you’re-expelled policy.
In some respects, plagiarism is complicated. My syllabus says that plagiarism includes a variety of offenses “from lifting a paper from a friend to lifting a sentence from Wikipedia, and from directly copying to paraphrasing without naming your source.” But I’ve lifted parts of my syllabus from other sources without attribution because no one expects a syllabus to be original. If someone were to congratulate me on my brilliant syllabus innovations, I would certainly give credit where credit was due.
In most respects, plagiarism is not complicated at all, which is why I’m suspicious of academics who tell me that students cheat because in this new internet, connected, collaborative, globalized blah, blah, blah world, they don’t see why they can’t borrow stuff. I have yet to meet anyone over the age of ten who didn’t grasp that trying to pass off something not yours as yours is a species of deception. There are tricky cases, but none of the plagiarism cases I’ve come across in over twenty years of teaching has been tricky. They’ve always been blatant.
Jill Abramson, former New York Times executive editor, was caught committing blatant acts of plagiarism in her new book about things amiss in the world of journalism. Merchants of Truth is a fat book of which the plagiarized sections uncovered so far represent a tiny proportion. But they are egregious. One representative example, uncovered by Michael Moynihan of Vice magazine, particularly egregious. She appears to have lifted a direct passage from a 2005 article in Ryerson Review of Journalism almost word-for-word.
Merchants of Truth was a big project. It was researched over the course of years by more than one person—Abramson had an assistant whom she credits with extensive help. It’s not hard to imagine how, amid such a project, one could mistake paraphrased passages in one’s notes for one’s own writing. I’m plenty disorganized, so perhaps I’m saved from discoveries like Moynihan’s solely by the fact that my mother alone has, maybe, read my book. But as I tell my students, such negligence, however human it may be, is discrediting. It’s not within our powers to read the author’s heart. Moreover, even if, as seems almost certain, Abramson’s plagiarism was unintentional, that doesn’t mean it’s not serious. If I drunkenly mistake someone’s house for my own and then sell it, I should be penalized in some way, and I should be ashamed.
Is Abramson ashamed? She says she has been up nights. But she has also tried to discredit Moynihan by questioning his motives. “All of these issues are coming from Vice which, you know, is clearly not happy with my portrayal,” Abramson says. Yet, as her NPR interviewer points out, she has other accusers. Besides, Moynihan has the goods, so who cares about his motives? Abramson also says she hasn’t stolen “original ideas or analysis,” as if stealing words isn’t a big deal.
In a recent CNN interview, Brian Stelter presses Abramson repeatedly to concede that borrowing someone else’s words without attribution is plagiarizing. Abramson doesn’t just dodge but dismisses the challenge. “I know you insist on calling it that.” Sorry, it just is that, as Abramson once acknowledged, when it was a question of someone else’s misdeeds rather than hers: “when you take material almost word-for-word and don’t credit it, it is [plagiarism].” True, that.
It’s disheartening that Abramson–an authority on journalism, and now a senior lecturer at Harvard–has decided that refusing to admit wrongdoing is more important than journalistic or academic ethics. Ethics, it seems, is for the little people.