Keep Your Paws Off My Words

Write off exam in school

When I first taught university-level business courses, I regularly asked students to analyze a company’s financial health and write a cogent research report. After a few semesters of putting my red marking pens to work, I grew frustrated with poor grammar, inconsistent logic and otherwise sloppy work from dozens of individuals. Whenever I received an assignment that read too well, my first task was to run blocks of text through a plagiarism checker. With great disappointment, few literate papers passed the test. Many students cheated by having someone else do their work entirely or extracting full pages of words from published professionals. Eventually I insisted on better vetting before I would accept something to grade. A year or two later, I gave up on written homework altogether and had students tackle mathematical problems instead.

Earlier this week, I was reminded about the ethics of original writing when a colleague emailed me with a question about how I credit others whenever I excerpt their work. My answer was to err on the side of caution and attribute direct quotes whenever possible.

Alas, experts say that cheating is not always easy to recognize, especially the kind that can lead to legal challenges. According to “Stop Thief! Writers and Plagiarism” by Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas (The Book Designer, March 4, 2015), “Plagiarism is often confused with copyright infringement and piracy, and even with simple lying and fabrication. All of these practices strike at an author’s integrity, but they’re not plagiarism.” They reference a book called The Little Book of Plagiarism by Judge Richard A. Posner, cite famous wrongdoers and offer hints about how to avoid problems. Given the complexity of the topic, I’m heading out to the bookstore to purchase my copy.