Lessons from a Plagiarist

It happens every semester. Some student, thinking themselves very clever indeed, Googles up a WIkipedia entry, some obscure facts page from some obscure website, an essay from one of the plagiarism sites, or, one time, even one of my own papers, and hands it in as his or her own.

The smarter ones cut out the links and references to the site their paper came from. The smartest ones cut bits and pieces of several sources together into a seamless new creation – a ton of work and almost admirable, if any of the words had been their own. But what the smartest share with the dimmest is this: they’re all easy to catch.

Confronted, they fall into a couple of patterns. The defiant offer up powerful excuses like “My cousin told me she wrote this!” and “No, that’s all my work.IT’s just a coincidence that Wikipedia put the same words in the same order!” The contrite shuffle their feet, beg to redo their assignments (sometimes turning in more plagiarized work!), or just plain disappear, humiliated.

But this is not a post about plagiarism, it’s a post about life – specifically the  lessons we can all learn from plagiarists. Because while I am professionally, legally, and morally bound to be harsh to plagiarists, I  also believe that getting caught offers them an opportunity to learn some very important lessons. Lessons about living with a certain degree of grace and decency and, if they put their mind to it, lessons in redemption.

Here are the five big lessons I think we can all learn from plagiarists:

  1. Never do anything that would embarrass you if anyone knew about it. The reason students plagiarize is because they believe they won’t get caught. That’s simply the wrong attitude to take, about anything. This is a very simple moral rule: if being caught would be humiliating – even if you’re not technically doing anything wrong – don’t do it.
  2. Never underestimate the intelligence or resourcefulness of others. I know PT Barnum said nobody had ever gone broke by overestimating the stupidity of the average person, but it works the other way, too – people often turn out to be much smarter than you give them credit for, and they have access to resources you might not have imagined. You’d think students would figure a guy with a PhD-level education and 6 years of classroom experience would be pretty savvy to the ways of plagiarists, but they don’t get it. Which is fine by me – it means catching plagiarism is the easiest part of my job, not the hardest.
  3. Own your actions. You’ve plagiarized, you’re caught – quick, who do you blame?! If you say “myself”, congratulations, you’re well on your way to being a decent person. Or, you didn’t plagiarize, you worked hard and did good work, who gets credit? Hopefully you said “myself” again – and if you see why it makes sense in the second case, you can see why it’s important in the first case. When we try to shift blame for our shortcomings to other people, we sell ourselves short, leaving no room for growth or improvement next time. It becomes a self-sustaining cycle – if it’s never your fault, then there’s never any reason to stop.
  4. It’s never too late to seek a second chance. No matter how badly you screw up, there’s always the possibility of redemption – but only you can follow that path. You have to seek it out – ask for a chance to redo whatever you messed up, try doubly hard next time, take your lumps and resolve never to make the same mistake again. There’s two conditions here: the external condition – what it takes to satisfy the person you’ve wronged – and the internal condition – what it takes to satisfy yourself. You may never be able to redress the injury to the other party, but only you can decide what measures you’re willing to go to in order to try. Likewise, only you can decide when your own standards have been met.
  5. Sometimes, the most important lesson you can learn is failure. My department chair told me this during my first semester as a college instructor. In education these days, success often comes too cheap. K-12 educators have to fight for permission to fail under-performing students, competitions are set up so that everyone wins, and so on. But ask any successful person, whether in academia, public service, or business, and they’ll tell you that the most important events in their lives have been the failures, not the successes (and especially not the easy successes). Learning how to fail with grace – and how to pick yourself up and go forward without repeating your mistakes – is an incredibly valuable lesson, and while it may suck to live through, it’s an occasion that we should be at least a little thankful for.

These are valuable lessons, and they apply far beyond the immediate context of plagiarism or academic work. All of us can benefit from avoiding actions that we wouldn’t want others to find out about (from hiding a relationship to committing a crime), respecting the competency of others, owning our actions and their consequences, redressing our errors, and learning from our failures. It’s only unfortunate that so many young people have to risk so much – I could conceivably have students who violate my school’s academic honesty policy censured or even expelled – to learn these lessons.

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