Bruhm: If you plagiarize, you should fail

Editor’s note: This letter was originally sent to Globe and Mail public editor Sylvia Stead. On Monday, the newspaper disciplined columnist Margaret Wente over allegations of plagiarism, with the paper’s editor calling the work in question “unacceptable.”

On Sept. 21, I sent an email to The Globe and Mail in which I argued, as a university professor, I hold my students to the highest standards of honesty and integrity when they use the resources of others; simply put, if they plagiarize, they fail.

That email message was originally sent to a different editorial desk, but the person who replied to me promised she would send it along to you. I have not received your reply, nor do I expect to; I know you’re quite busy. However, it was quite shocking later that day to read your response to the problem you admit exists in Wente’s use of Robert Paarlberg’s original material.

You offer, as the solution, the following: “Editor’s Note: This column contains thoughts and statements by Professor Robert Paarlberg which are paraphrased and not always clearly identified.” This note will now appear after the fact, that is, after the deed has been done.

Let me return to the example of my classroom, and create an analogy.

A student plagiarizes an essay for me. I detect the unattributed source and/or suss out the faulty citation practice. I give the paper a grade of zero if not advocate for his dismissal from my course.

Under your scheme, what I should really do is place a Post-It Note on the essay stating: “Professor’s Note: This essay contains thoughts and statements by (insert real author’s name here) which are paraphrased and not always clearly identified.” But the grade the essay would have earned had I not detected the cheating would remain, as all is forgiven by this appended note (which is in no way an apology, just a disembodied factoid). The student gets an A, because the content of the essay is smart.

Has that student been fairly served, would you say? Have principles of academic integrity been upheld? Have I sent that oh-so-important message of responsible citizenship to this student?

And, staying with my classroom for one more minute, let’s take the situation the next step further, which is where it would go. News of my student’s plagiarism leaks to other students, as does the salve of the explanatory note appended retrospectively.

What do the rest of my students conclude?

It’s okay to plagiarize, because there’s nothing to lose. If you’re caught, put in the excusing note. You can now cite precedent. And nothing will happen to you. It’s open season for cheating.

Readers and writers who want to maintain standards of honesty and integrity in the journalistic sphere are watching you for the example you are setting, the example which will help to define not only your newspaper but standards of research practice inside and outside postsecondary education. To date, what you have done is not enough.

Steven Bruhm
Professor, Department of English