Why is plagiarism wrong?

Plagiarism is fascinating. One of the reasons it holds my interest is trying to figure out why we get so worked up about it. On a basic level there seems to be a connection between creators and their creations, but why is this connection given so much importance?

In recent years a German Defence Minister and a Hungarian President lost their jobs because of scandals surrounding plagiarized PhDs. Surely their jobs had nothing to do with their ability to complete a PhD without plagiarism. They lost their jobs because of the perceived dishonesty plagiarism entails. But politicians are held up to strange standards of behavior.

When the author Helene Hegemann was accused of plagiarizing sections of her debut novel Axolotl Roadkill she countered with: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.

There is something interesting with this position – but it would have been stronger if she had put it forward before being found out.

Plagiarism has a strong place within academia but this can be explained by the internal social rules that exist there. Academia is a strange place where science is produced according to an odd set of norms and internal rules that are necessary in that context but are these norms even interesting outside academia?

The academic position on plagiarism is absolute. It is so strong that it is even applied to students in a way that may be harmful to teaching and learning. Here, I do not mean the rare cases where take someone’s work and simply change the name. What I mean here is the case when someone does not adequately use a reference system or when they practice the art of synonyms and re-writing the works of others.

A student work that does not use adequate sources is seen as plagiarism but can consist actually be an example of independent thought. Conversely a work that re-writes and synonymises and references properly is usually not judged as plagiarism – even if it in reality has no independent thought.

The anxiety of the system has led to investments into anti-plagiarism software. But this software does not stop plagiarism. It only teaches students to ensure that they have re-written and referenced enough. The focus is no longer on independent thought but on ensuring deniability and not getting caught.

Ultimately plagiarism and students tends to demand too much of a professionalism of the students and forgets the basic premise that much of learning is derived from copying. Professional academics should still be held to the system of plagiarism today – but should this still apply to students? We need to redefine student plagiarism in some form.

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