Students are constantly reminded that they must not plagiarize. Or, at least, I certainly am. During my orientation at Columbia University, I signed an honor code which affirmed that I would not illegitimately present others’ writing as my own. Today, while taking my first exam of the spring semester, I again had to copy and sign a portion of this same honor code. Implicit in this reminder is the warning of what will happen to those who are found guilty of committing plagiarism. More often than not, this punishment is severe. Students will fail their assignments or, at worst, they will be expelled.
Outside of the university, the cost of plagiarism is just as serious. It requires very little searching to find recent instances of politicians or journalists who have lost their degrees–or even their jobs–after an incident of past plagiarism was discovered. Last year, the New York Times revealed that John Walsh, then a Democratic senator from Montana, had plagiarized a paper necessary for his master’s degree. Walsh did credit many of his sources, but he did not use quotation marks even when identically copying the original authors’ language. After this news came to light, the U.S. Army War College revoked Walsh’s degree and he withdrew his bid for re-election. These repercussions may seem grave, but they are not shocking.
The intention behind punishing plagiarism so harshly is clear: if writers understand the consequences of appropriating others’ words without crediting them, then their own writing will be more original as a result. They will not simply restate what their sources have already written, and instead they will offer only their own unique voice in their writing. But is an uncompromising stigmatization of plagiarism truly the best way to promote original writing?
I cannot condone those who knowingly attempt to claim the work of other writers as their own. Plagiarism is, however, a complex issue. Of course, there are numerous theoretical debates concerning what actually constitutes an author or whether all language is nothing more than a reiteration of what has been previously said. But, ignoring those arguments, it is important to consider than many writers do unknowingly plagiarize. These writers may not have the skills to meaningfully relate what has already been written about a topic without reproducing it verbatim, and they may not be aware of proper citation techniques. Such unconscious plagiarism is especially common among English language learners, who also may not be aware of the adamant expectation in the English-speaking academic tradition that writers will credit every author whose ideas they have engaged. Writers who natively speak English may obviously make the same mistake. Indeed, anyone who has not mastered the basic mechanics of academic writing may plagiarize without intending to do so.
Does harshly punishing plagiarists who are unaware of their transgression help them to become more original–and thus “better”–writers? Clearly, this is not the case. When universities warn students that they will fail an assignment or that they will be expelled, they are coercing students into not plagiarizing. However successful this approach may be, it does little to help writers who do not understand the necessity of citing others’ work or those who cannot adequately synthesize others’ writing into something that original.
We must adopt a more nuanced system of addressing plagiarism. Condemning plagiarism outright does not encourage original writing among those who need it most. We should not treat plagiarism as if it is merely theft. Instead, it should be viewed as a defect of original writing. We must teach writers that plagiarism is not a transgression to be avoided, but a failing to overcome. As students learn to become better writers, they will learn to express themselves more originally, and they will learn avoid plagiarizing other writers in lieu of presenting their own ideas.