Saturday, August 18, 2012

Ethics for Magical People: Copying (1 of 2)

I will be posting a series on ethics since they do govern how we approach nature.  These are various case studies.

In the case study of Phillip copying paragraphs from a book without directly citing the source, several factors must be considered before the University can mete out the proper punishment.  The first factor is to consider is why punishment for plagiarism is important.  For many literate people, plagiarism is considered to be stealing as well as intellectual dishonesty. To me, plagiarism is not merely a theft of words but also of the author’s time and labor.  For the reader, it brings on a creeping doubt to the veracity of the writing.  And for the plagiarist, it stifles his ability to find his own unique voice.  Because of plagiarism, the fabric of disseminating and receiving knowledge is rent beyond repair since no one can trust the written words or ideas of another.

At colleges and universities, the deans and faculty expect their students to produce original work.  Furthermore, they want each student to demonstrate that she does understand the various class materials.  In contrast, plagiarism diminishes the reputation of the whole university since the work of every student reflects the values of that particular university.  Moreover, copying another person’s work penalizes the students who struggled to write it. 

The second factor to consider is that of the writing skill of the student, who is caught plagiarizing.  Education columnist Jay Mathews of “The Washington Post” notes in his blog that many students have poor writing skills.  He stresses how ill prepared high school students are for completing writing assignments in college.  Because of this, they are tempted to purchase a paper or copy and paste from other people’s essays.

Wayne State University (Detroit, Michigan), in their materials on plagiarism, discusses how students develop into good writers.  First, they “patch write” which resembles “cutting and pasting”.  This transitional phase of writing helps the beginner to find her voice by copying the style of more experienced writers.  A step to detect whether a student deliberately copied or “patch wrote” is to have him explain an obscure point in his paper.  A student who has problems with citation will be able to answer the professor’s probing questions.  Matthews gives an example of a literature professor who asked a student, whom she suspected of plagiarism, about his paper on Faulkner.  When he could not identify who Faulkner was, she reported to her university that he had bought his paper from a “term-paper mill”.

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