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Plagiarism in Plaguetime
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Plagiarism in Plaguetime

The world in a plague year is a world turned upside down. Everything familiar becomes strange, and everything normal becomes peculiar. Commodities become scarce and luxuries become worthless. Leisure becomes insufferable and labor becomes precious. The great become small and the small reveal their greatness.

But one thing is constant. The plagiarism police remain vigilant. Neither plague nor pestilence nor quarantine nor social distancing stays these soldiers from pursuing their self-appointed mission. If they cannot abide a plagiarist during normal times, they cannot abide a plagiarist during plaguetime either. Indeed, they must increase their vigilance, as none other will stand athwart copying and yell stop.

Why should we humor these curmudgeonly guardians of scholarly propriety? Oh, they would be delighted to explain it to you, in insufferable but trivially novel or well-attributed detail. We must protect readers from unscrupulous authors, who wish merely to entertain, rather than honor their predecessors. We must protect authors from scurrilous copyists, who wish only to siphon their fame. And we must protect copyright owners, who wish solely to pretend that anything is really new.

As would any cop, the plagiarism police target the weakest offenders, who have the least to lose. In their case, it is students, who observe plagiarism rules with the same diligence and respect they accord alcohol prohibition. And who can blame them? After all, nothing undercuts the legitimacy of a rule like hypocrisy. If anything, plagiarism rules are even more hypocritical.

We academics tell our students they must attribute every idea and expression they wish to use. But we all know perfectly well there is nothing new under the sun. All of human thought is a footnote. Even Plato was surely a copyist, we have merely forgotten his sources. Our students snicker, even as they genuflect. They know our garments are imaginary.

Why do we object to students copying? We insist they cannot learn without producing ideas and expressions sui generis, like spinning chaff into gold. But we never expect the same of ourselves, and for good reason. It is wasteful to reinvent the wheel, and we value our time, even if we don’t value theirs. We recycle because it is efficient and sensible, but pretend irrelevant citations make it hagiography. Spare me. Nobody cares about the footnotes, except the people they exalt.

We are scholars. But we are also teachers. And our only job as teachers – the only purpose of universities as schools – is educating students. Anything that helps students learn is good. Anything that keeps students from learning is bad. There is considerable evidence that copying promotes learning, and plagiarism norms prevent it. If you care about learning, you should embrace plagiarism, at least when it comes to students. In this case, we truly must destroy the norm in order to save it.

Students copy in order to practice writing skills, internalize an unfamiliar voice, or articulate ideas they cannot yet refine. We should encourage all of these practices because they are what is called “learning.” Plagiarism norms teach students only that certain professors in certain disciplines enforce incoherent and unpredictable rules with uncompromising severity. After all, in many disciplines, copying is not only tolerated but positively encouraged. In the arts as well as in lawyering, if you aren’t plagiarizing, you’re committing malpractice.

Perhaps in plaguetime we can reconsider even the rules of our little cartel. As academics, we love plagiarism rules. They are the only thing that allows us to own the idea we covet and cling to so preciously. But our desires are a small thing, and petty to boot. If we wish to continue persecuting each other, at least let us spare our students.

I encourage you to turn a blind eye to so-called plagiarism, so long as students are learning. To hell with plagiarism policies and honor councils. To hell with plagiarism detectors and pledges. Let students learn however it makes sense to them. If it means copying, so be it. They’ll do plenty when they start practicing law.

 

Brian L. Frye is a conceptual law professor (IP, PR, nonprofits, art law, legal history) at the University of Kentucky College of Law. Brian is also a “Securities artist” and a host of the Ipse Dixit Podcast.

 

Suggested citation: Brian L. Frye, Plagiarism in Plaguetime, JURIST – Academic Commentary, March 28, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/03/brian-frye-plagiarism-in-plaguetime/


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