My first political philosophy teacher was the great Joseph Cropsey who, when we came to a difficult problem in Plato, would sometimes exhort us.
“Courage,” he would say, knowing that we were tempted to quit, not only because Plato was a hard read but also because there was much in us, from vanity to laziness to fear, that resisted education.
Like Cropsey, Mark Edmundson thinks that education makes demands on a student’s character. In his 1997 Harper’s essay, “On The Uses of A Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students,” he retells the story of a professor who supposedly issued “a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to?” Edmundson admits that the question is heavy-handed but approves of the idea that teachers summon students to an encounter they may want to dodge. Students so challenged may skip the reading, or close themselves to what they read, or engage in other kinds of cheating.
I use “cheating” in the extended sense we use when we say our students are “cheating themselves.” James Lang, for the most part, means it more narrowly in in Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. But I thought of Cropsey and Edmundson as I read Cheating Lessons because Lang shies away from the question of character. Instead, his book is about helping “faculty members to respond more effectively to academic dishonesty by modifying the learning environments they [have] constructed.”
Lang, an associate professor of English at Assumption College, advances a “theory about how specific features of a learning environment can play an important role in determining whether or not students cheat.” Students who think learning is a means to an end take shortcuts. So a learning environment discourages cheating when it fosters “intrinsic motivation in our students,” rather than “relying on extrinsic motivators such as grades.”
Students encouraged to outperform each other on high-stakes assessments feel pressure to cheat. So a learning environment discourages cheating when it invites students to attain “learning objectives” and permits them to show that attainment in a variety of ways, with low-stakes assessments preparing the way for high-stakes assessments. Students who think assignments are impossible will find it easy to justify cheating. So a learning environment discourages cheating when it instills a “strong but realistic sense of self-efficacy.”
But Lang does not want teachers to think of themselves as academic honesty cops. The most “exciting discovery [he] made while writing” Cheating Lessons is this: “environments which reduce the incentive and opportunity to cheat are the very ones that, according to the most current information we have about how human beings learn, will lead to greater and deeper learning.”
Lang made this discovery, he writes, by looking at the “problem of cheating through the lens of cognitive theory.” For example, a teacher may think that giving frequent low-stakes assessments is a distraction from learning. Lang himself thought so until he found out “how little [he] knew about the basic workings of the brain.” The well-documented “testing effect” suggests that such assessments are not merely measures of learning but an effective means of helping students retain what they have learned.
Yet I balk at the very term “learning environment,” with its faint odor of antiseptic. Educators may use the term out of humility, placing themselves in the background and seeking not so much to teach as to place students in a situation in which they can learn. But the idea of a teacher as a constructor and modifier of learning environments merely shifts the teacher’s role from the front of the room to inside the control room, flipping switches and twisting dials, modifying conditions in the same way one might modify “the conditions of a laboratory,” in accordance with the latest learning theory. It is not obvious that this approach is humbler than that of Cropsey, who, while he stood in front of the room, nonetheless was visibly engaged in the same set of difficult and fascinating problems in which he sought to engage us. If we think of our students as subjects in our laboratory, to be manipulated and nudged toward desirable behaviors, how can we develop in them the qualities of character they will need to govern themselves in environments we do not control?
To be fair, Lang, who offers several exemplars of great teaching, is well aware that teachers are models, or even coaches, not just environmental technicians. But even when he profiles a teacher, Jim Hoyle, who plainly exemplifies for students both the joys and demands of work in his field, Lang is interested in how “the ways in which we communicate with students can also help them develop an appropriately gauged sense of self-efficacy.”
Hoyle, who has written his own book on teaching, indicates that there is something more going on when he describes his own role model, Vince Lombardi. Lombardi exemplified not only a way of communicating with athletes but a message, about “courage,” “determination,” “dedication,” and “sacrifice,” that Hoyle thinks “excellent ... for both teachers and students.”
Lang’s target readers “might feel uncertain about their ability to cultivate virtues in their students.” Lang himself reminds the reader that “you are not an ethics professor” and warns against haranguing. I assume Hoyle, like most sensible people, takes for granted neither his own virtues nor his capacity to foster them in others, and he does not, on Lang’s account, do much haranguing.
But Hoyle also seems to think that he need not be an American Philosophical Association certified moral expert to try to impart to students, as well as the readers of his book on teaching, the virtues that attend the best learning and teaching. The cultivation of such virtues may be a more effective spur to learning and antidote to cheating in its narrow and broad senses than the strategies, all of them useful, on which Lang focuses. As Peter Lawler has recently argued, teachers may do well to recall the “Aristotelian point” that “intellectual virtue depends on moral virtue.”
Admittedly, I cannot appeal to the social science literature on cheating that Lang has acquainted himself with to support that last set of claims. And I agree with him that teachers and administrators must not ignore what experiments can tell us about learning. It would be foolish to spend a dime on an academic integrity orientation before you have processed Dan Ariely’s finding that Princeton’s academic integrity orientation showed absolutely no effect on the likelihood that Princeton students would cheat on a math test two weeks after it ended. It would be foolish to ignore the results of the MIT experiment with a “studio model” for teaching physics, which dramatically reduced both cheating and the rate of failure in the course.
But Lang oversells what social science can tell us at present. For example, to support his argument that “performance oriented classrooms,” which emphasize “grades and competition among students,” encourage cheating, Lang cites a paper by Eric Anderman and Tamara Murdock. But Anderman and Murdock are more cautious than Lang because while “students report cheating more if they perceive the presence of a performance goal structure,” two studies find that “goal structure appears to be unrelated to cheating when a more objective method of assessing context is utilized.” The “extent to which teachers can reduce cheating by implementing” practices of the sort Lang recommends “is still unclear.”
Consider also Lang’s doubt that “hard punishments deter potential cheaters.” While Lang supports this claim in part by citing the work of Donald McCabe, Kenneth Butterfield, and Linda Trevino, they themselves have concluded, drawing on their own and others’ research, that “academic dishonesty is negatively associated with the perceived certainty of being reported and the perceived severity of penalties.” Similarly, Anderman and Murdock, in the same paper we have been considering, assume that “[f]ears of being caught and the perceived severity of the consequences for being caught are two of the most important deterrents to potential cheaters.”
Lang is still right to emphasize that “we have no incontrovertible evidence that harsh penalties deter cheating.” Moreover, I agree with him that an anti-cheating regime that focuses primarily on threats is unlikely to succeed. On the other hand, there is hardly a groundswell of support for harsh punishments. McCabe and his co-authors argue that the opposite is true: many faculty members have concluded that confronting cheating isn’t worth the trouble. How, they ask, “can we expect students to believe that cheating is a serious problem when faculty and others are reluctant to deal with cheaters ... when cheating receives minor consequences and, worst of all, when faculty look the other way?”
However that may be, Lang, as his discussion of the performance classroom shows, does not typically insist that evidence be incontrovertible before one acts on it. It is fine to set a high bar for accepting and acting on the results of social science research. But you can’t set a higher bar for approaches you are already inclined to disagree with than you set for approaches you are otherwise inclined to favor.
Jonathan Marks, author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Cambridge University Press, 2005), is associate professor of politics at Ursinus College. He tweets at twitter.com/marksjo1.
The news that 125 Harvard students were under investigation for cheating on an exam came just days after we were informed that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was stripping Lance Armstrong of his Tour de France titles. In both of these cases, we have alleged wrongdoing by those at the top of their fields, and there is no reason to think that it was cheating that got them there. The Harvard students were admitted to our top university because of their hard work and scholarly achievement. Armstrong would have been a racing legend regardless. It is easy to understand why those who are not in the upper echelon might seek illicit advantage in order to get their shot at greatness, but why would the already great cheat?
To act in an ethical way requires two steps: first, you need to figure out what would be the right thing to do in your particular situation, and second, you need to actually do it. Usually, when we commit immoral acts, it is a failure of the second step. We know we shouldn’t do it, but we do it anyway.
Maybe it was expedient, maybe it got us something we really wanted or allowed us to hide some misdeed or embarrassing error, or perhaps it was peer pressure or rebellion. Usually, we are fully aware when we are doing something we shouldn’t and we try to hide it or rationalize it. Fewer are the times when we act wrongly by moral miscalculation, when we thought about how to behave and came up with the wrong answer. But that may be exactly what happened in these cases.
If what we value is out of whack, then so will be our decisions about what constitutes proper action. If we are driven solely by ends, if success and achievement are the only things to which we assign worth, then the means will seem unimportant by contrast.
In athletics, we celebrate winners. Sporting goods stores are full of t-shirts with sayings such as “Second place is the first loser” or “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” Wheaties boxes are reserved for champions. The message is clear – it is not the training, practicing or competing, but the victory that is valued. The playing of the game is fleeting, quickly forgotten but for the highlight reel; it is only the win or the loss that becomes a thing in itself and lives on forever.
If sports were about the playing, then cheating would be not only wrong, but irrational -- it destroys the entire reason for engaging in the sport. If a mountain climber’s goal is to say he stood at the peak of Kilimanjaro, then he could get there by helicopter and the climbing would become irrelevant. And if what we value changes from the doing to what has been done, then cheating becomes desirable.
What we see in sports is now being deeply embedded in the classroom. It is not the acquiring of knowledge, understanding, or insight, but rather the grade that is important. We are less interested in learning than in learning outcomes.
The switch is subtle, but critically important. If students love thinking and learning, then cheating cheats them of what they seek. There would be a disincentive to take short cuts.
But if process is trumped by outcomes in education, then cheating become rational. Add a competitive element in which there will be positive or negative consequences for having higher or lower marks and you develop a culture in which seeking any means to better scores becomes natural and normal, not only accepted but lauded. In this environment, the cheater is seen as “beating the system”, as having played the game better, not worse.
This may be what happened at Harvard. With standardized tests and concern about learning outcomes assessment, we have altered how we look at learning purportedly to help it improve. But what we have done is to sow the seeds of that which undermines it and leads to the destruction of what made it valuable in the first place.
Steve Gimbel is chair of the department of philosophy at Gettysburg College.
In its 1966 declaration on professional ethics, the American Association of University Professors, the professoriate’s representation organization, states:
"Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them....They hold before them the best scholarly and ethical standards of their discipline.… They acknowledge significant academic or scholarly assistance from (their students)."
Notwithstanding such pronouncements, higher education recently has provided the public with a series of ethical solecisms, most spectacularly the University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill’s recidivistic plagiarism and duplicitous claim of Native American ancestry along with his denunciations of 9/11 victims. While plagiarism and fraud presumably remain exceptional, accusations and complaints of such wrong doing increasingly come to light.
Some examples include Demas v. Levitsky at Cornell, where a doctoral student filed a legal complaint against her adviser’s failure to acknowledge her contribution to a grant proposal; Professor C. William Kauffman’s complaint against the University of Michigan for submitting a grant proposal without acknowledging his authorship; and charges of plagiarism against by Louis W. Roberts, the now-retired classics chair at the State University of New York at Albany. Additional plagiarism complaints have been made against Eugene M. Tobin, former president of Hamilton College, and Richard L. Judd, former president of Central Connecticut State University.
In his book Academic Ethics, Neil Hamilton observes that most doctoral programs fail to educate students about academic ethics so that knowledge of it is eroding. Lack of emphasis on ethics in graduate programs leads to skepticism about the necessity of learning about ethics and about how to teach it. Moreover, nihilist philosophies that have gained currency within the academy itself such as Stanley Fish’s “antifoundationalism” contribute to the neglect of ethics education. . For these reasons academics generally do not seriously consider how ethics education might be creatively revived. In reaction to the Enron corporate scandal, for instance, some business schools have tacked an ethics course onto an otherwise ethically vacuous M.B.A. program. While a step in the right direction, a single course in a program otherwise uninformed by ethics will do little to change the program’s culture, and may even engender cynicism among students.
Similarly, until recently, ethics education had been lacking throughout the American educational system. In response, ethicists such as Kevin Ryan and Karen Bohlin have advocated a radical renewal of ethics education in elementary schools. They claim that comprehensive ethics education can improve ethical standards. In Building Character in Schools, Ryan and Bohlin compare an elementary school to a polis, or Greek city state, and urge that ethics be fostered everywhere in the educational polis.
Teachers, they say, need to set standards and serve as ethical models for young students in a variety of ways and throughout the school. They find that manipulation and cheating tend to increase where academic achievement is prized but broader ethical values are not. They maintain that many aspects of school life, from the student cafeteria to the faculty lounge, ought to provide opportunities, among other things, to demonstrate concern for others. They also propose the use of vision statements that identify core virtues along with the implementation of this vision through appropriate involvement by staff and students.
We would argue that, like elementary schools, universities have an obligation to ethically nurture undergraduate and graduate students. Although the earliest years of life are most important for the formation of ethical habits, universities can influence ethics as well. Like the Greek polis, universities become ethical when they become communities of virtue that foster and demonstrate ethical excellence. Lack of commitment to teaching, lack of concern for student outcomes, false advertising about job opportunities open to graduates, and diploma-mill teaching practices are examples of institutional practices that corrode rather than nourish ethics on campuses.
Competency-based education, broadly considered, is increasingly of interest in business schools. Under the competency-based approach (advocated, for example, by Rick Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve University, David Whetten of Brigham Young University, and Kim Cameron of the University of Michigan), students are exposed not only to theoretical concepts, but also to specific competencies that apply the theory. They are expected to learn how to apply in their lives the competencies learned in the classroom, for instance those relating to communication and motivating others. Important ethical competencies (or virtues) should be included and fostered alongside such competencies. Indeed, in applied programs such as business, each discipline and subject can readily be linked to ethical virtues. Any applied field, from traffic engineering to finance, can and should include ethical competencies as an integral part of each course.
For example, one of us currently teaches a course on managerial skills, one portion of which focuses on stress management. The stress management portion includes a discussion of personal mission setting, which is interpreted as a form of stress management. The lecture emphasizes how ethics can intersect with practical, real world decision making and how it can relate to competencies such as achievement orientation. In the context of this discussion, which is based on a perspective that originated with Aristotle, a tape is shown of Warren Buffett suggesting to M.B.A. students at the University of North Carolina that virtue is the most important element of personal success.
When giving this lecture, we have found that street smart undergraduate business students at Brooklyn College and graduates in the evening Langone program of the Stern School of Business of New York University respond well to Buffett’s testimony, perhaps better than they would to Aristotle’s timeless discussions in Nicomachean Ethics.
Many academics will probably resist integration of ethical competencies into their course curriculums, and in recent years it has become fashionable to blame economists for such resistance. For example, in his book Moral Dimension, Amitai Etzioni equates the neoclassical economic paradigm with disregard for ethics. Sumantra Ghoshal’s article “Bad Management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practices,” in Academy of Management Learning and Education Journal, blames ethical decay on the compensation and management practices that evolved from economic theory’s emphasis on incentives.
We disagree that economics has been all that influential. Instead, the problem is much more fundamental to the humanities and social sciences and has its root in philosophy. True, economics can exhibit nihilism. For example, the efficient markets hypothesis, that has influenced finance, holds that human knowledge is impotent in the face of efficient markets. This would imply that moral choice is impotent because all choice is so. But the efficient markets hypothesis is itself a reflection of a deeper and broader philosophical positivism that is now pandemic to the entire academy.
Over the past two centuries the assaults on the rational basis for morals have created an atmosphere that stymies interest in ethical education. In the 18th century, the philosopher David Hume wrote that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” so that morals are emotional and cannot be proven true. Today’s academic luminaries have thoroughly imbibed this “emotivist” perspective. For example, Stanley Fish holds that even though academics do exhibit morality by condemning “cheating, academic fraud and plagiarism,” there is no universal morality beyond this kind of “local practice.”
Whatever its outcome, the debate over the rational derivability of ethical laws from a set of clear and certain axioms that hold universally is of little significance in and of itself. It will not determine whether ethics is more or less important in our lives; nor will it provide a disproof of relativism -- since defenders of relativism can still choose not to accept the validity of the derivation.
Yet ethics must still be lived -- even though the knowledge, competency, skill or talent that is needed to lead a moral life, a life of virtue, may not be derived from any clear and certain axioms. There is no need for derivation of the need, for instance, for good interpersonal skills. Rather, civilization depends on competency, skill and talent as much as it depends on practical ethics. Ethical virtue does not require, nor is it sustained by, logical derivation; it becomes most manifest, perhaps, through its absence, as revealed in the anomie and social decline that ensue from its abandonment. Philosophy is beside the point.
Based on much evidence of such a breakdown, ethics education experts such as Thomas Lickona of the SUNY's College at Cortland have concluded that to learn to act ethically, human beings need to be exposed to living models of ethical emotion, intention and habit. Far removed from such living models, college students today are incessantly exposed to varying degrees of nihilism: anti-ethical or disembodied, hyper-rational positions that Professor Fish calls “poststructuralist” and “antifoundationalist.” In contrast, there is scant emphasis in universities on ethical virtue as a pre-requisite for participation in a civilized world. Academics tend to ignore this ethical pre-requisite, preferring to pretend that doing so has no social repercussions.
They are disingenuous – and wrong.
It is at the least counterintuitive to deny that the growing influence of nihilism within the academy is deeply, and causally, connected to increasing ethical breaches by academics (such as the cases of plagiarism and fraud that we cited earlier). Abstract theorizing about ethics has most assuredly affected academics’ professional behavior.
The academy’s influence on behavior extends, of course, far beyond its walls, for students carry the habits they have learned into society at large. The Enron scandal, for instance, had more roots in the academy than many academics have realized or would care to acknowledge. Kenneth Lay, Enron’s former chairman, holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Houston.Jeff Skilling, Enron’s former CEO, is a Harvard M.B.A. who had been a partner at the McKinsey consulting firm, one of the chief employers of top-tier M.B.A. graduates. According to Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, Enron had followed McKinsey’s lead, habitually hiring the brightest M.B.A. graduates from leading business schools, most often from the Wharton School. Compared to most other firms, it had more aggressively placed these graduates in important decision-making posts. Thus, the crimes committed at Enron cannot be divorced from decision-making by the best and brightest of the newly minted M.B.A. graduates of the 1990s.
As we have seen, the 1966 AAUP statement implies the crucial importance of an ethical foundation to academic life. Yet ethics no longer occupies a central place in campus life, and universities are not always run ethically. With news of academic misdeeds (not to mention more spectacular academic scandals, such as the Churchill affair) continuing to unfold, the public rightly grows distrustful of universities.
It is time for the academy to heed the AAUP’s 1915 declaration, which warned that if the professoriate “should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of … the unworthy… it is certain that the task will be performed by others.”
Must universities learn the practical value of ethical virtue by having it imposed from without? Or is ethical revival possible from within?
Candace de Russy and Mitchell Langbert
Candace de Russy is a trustee of the State University of New York and a Hudson Institute Adjunct Fellow. Mitchell Langbert is associate professor of business at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.
What I remember about that morning was that the black cloud was already overhead when I woke up. It followed me around. My wife wondered what all the sighing was about.
"Today I ruin this guy’s life," I told her. "His department told me he has office hours around noon. He’s going to pick up the phone, and when he does, I’m going to have to ask him questions that will be humiliating. It's going to ruin his life.”
“You shouldn’t look at it that way,” she said. “He did it to himself.”
True enough. I had a dossier of material showing that the professor in question had engaged in plagiarism -- quite a lot of it, actually, and in the very book that had gotten him tenure.
One author he plagiarized from had assembled a document in what seems to be the classic format for such cases. The lefthand column contained paragraphs of her work. The one on the right was from his book, published several years later, copied more or less word for word, with the occasional minuscule tweak of phrase or punctuation -- but without so much as a faint gesture of acknowledgment in the text, the footnotes, or the bibliography.
As I found through some digging, she was not the only author he had expropriated. (It is a safe generalization that plagiarists are always serial offenders.) With the other aggrieved parties, he had come to some kind of quiet agreement -- while the university he worked for remained none the wiser. That was about to change.
I would give him a chance to explain himself, of course. But really there was not much he could say. Plagiarism is one offense where simply presenting the evidence often amounts to conviction.
To be honest, researching the story had involved a certain amount of aggressive glee on my part. There is a special pleasure that comes from establishing an airtight case. (Besides, the superego is a bit of a sadist.) But now, with the prospect of actually talking to the guy looming, it was surprising to feel contempt give way to pity. His luck had run out. In a couple of days, he would be notorious. It felt as if I were serving as his judge, jury, and executioner – not to mention the court stenographer. Oddly enough, I felt guilty.
Besides, the psychology of the serial plagiarist is so puzzling as to be a fairly absorbing mystery. So I’d discovered a few years earlier from Norman Fruman’s book Coleridge, the Damaged Archangel (Brazillier, 1971).
The poet had not simply borrowed a thought or image here and there. Some of the occasional borrowings in his verse might be discounted as, well, poetic license. After all this time, the fact that Coleridge extracted large parts of his theory of imagination from the work of German philosophers seems more interesting than it is shocking. (The notion of intertextuality can be used to excuse a variety of sins.)
But when you learn that most of Coleridge’s prose writings were also copied from other writers -- often from Grub Street hacks of his day -- then it seems that something very odd is going on. And the more you love his poetry, the harder it is to know what to think of his kleptomania. Should you be indignant? Or just perplexed?
As for the 21st century professor .... he was no tortured Romantic genius. He did sound mortified when I called, and deeply regretful. He also managed to blame his graduate student assistant, who, he asserted, was somehow the one really at fault. (Just as the two-column format is the standard way of documenting plagiarism, so, it seems, the grad-student assistant is the standard scapegoat, at least with light-fingered academics.)
That half-hearted acceptance of responsibility on his part did the trick. My ambivalence vanished. A week or so later, the university announced that he had resigned from his position. I felt neither pride nor guilt -- only the mild curiosity appropriate to something that's now really none of your business.
But the topic of plagiarism itself keeps returning. One professor after another gets caught in the act. The journalists and popular writers are just as prolific with other people's words. And as for the topic of student plagiarism, forget it -- who has time to keep up?
It was not that surprising, last fall, to come across the call for papers for a new scholarly journal called Plagiary: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. I made a mental note to check its Web site again -- and see that it began publishing this month.
One study is already available at the site: an analysis of how the federal Office of Research Integrity handled 19 cases of plagiarism involving research supported by the U.S. Public Health Service. Another paper, scheduled for publication shortly, will review media coverage of the Google Library Project. Several other articles are now working their way through peer review, according to the journal’s founder, John P. Lesko, an assistant professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University, and will be published throughout the year in open-source form. There will also be an annual print edition of Plagiary. The entire project has the support of the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan.
In a telephone interview, Lesko told me that research into plagiarism is central to his own scholarship. His dissertation, titled “The Dynamics of Derivative Writing,” was accepted by the University of Edinburgh in 2000 -- extracts from which appear at his Web site Famous Plagiarists, which he says now gets between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors per month.
While the journal Plagiary has a link to Famous Plagiarists, and vice versa, Lesko insists that they are separate entities -- the former scholarly and professional, the latter his personal project. And that distinction is a good thing, too. Famous Plagiarists tends to hit a note of stridency such that, when Lesko quotes Camille Paglia denouncing the poststructuralists as “cunning hypocrites whose tortured syntax and encrustations of jargon concealed the moral culpability of their and their parents' generations in Nazi France,” she seems almost calm and even-tempered by contrast.
“It seems that both Foucault and Barthes' contempt for the Author was expressed in some rather plagiaristic utterances,” he writes, “a parroting of the Nietschean ‘God is dead’ assertion.” That might strike some people as confusing allusion with theft. But Lesko is vehement about how the theorists have served as enablers for the plagiarists, as well as the receivers of hot cargo.
“After all,” he writes, “a plagiarist -- so often with the help of collaborators and sympathizers -- steals the very livelihood of a text’s real author, thus relegating that author to obscurity for as long as the plagiarist’s name usurps a text, rather than the author being recognized as the text's originator. Plagiarism of an author condemns that author to death as a text’s rightfully acknowledged creator...” (The claim that Barthes and Foucault were involved in diminishing the reputation of Nietzsche has not, I believe, ever been made before.)
To a degree, his frustration is understandable. In some quarters, it is common to recite – as though it were an established truth, rather than an extrapolation from one of Foucault’s essays – the idea that plagiarism is a “historically constructed” category of fairly recent vintage: something that came into being around the 18th century, when a capitalistically organized publishing industry found it necessary to foster the concept of literary property.
A very interesting argument to be sure -- though not one that holds up under much scrutiny.
The term “plagiarism” in its current sense is about two thousand years old. It was coined by the Roman poet Martial, who complained that a rival was biting his dope rhymes. (I translate freely.) Until he applied the word in that context, plagiarius had meant someone who kidnapped slaves. Clearly some notion of literary property was already implicit in Martial’s figure of speech, which dates to the first century A.D.
At around the same time, Jewish scholars were putting together the text of that gigantic colloquium known as the Talmud, which contains a passage exhorting readers to be scrupulous about attributing their sources. (And in keeping with that principle, let me acknowledge pilfering from the erudition of Stuart P. Green, a professor of law at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, whose fascinating paper "Plagiarism, Norms, and the Limits of Theft Law: Some Observations on the Use of Criminal Sanctions in Enforcing Intellectual Property Rights" appeared in the Hastings Law Review in 2002.)
In other words, notions of plagiarism and of authorial integrity are very much older than, say, the Romantic cult of the absolute originality of the creative genius. (You know -- that idea Coleridge ripped off from Kant.)
At the same time, scholarship on plagiarism should probably consist of something more than making strong cases against perpetrators of intellectual thievery. That has its place, of course. But how do you understand it when artists and writers make plagiarism a deliberate and unambiguous policy? I’m thinking of Kathy Acker’s novels, for example. Or the essayist and movie maker Guy Debord’s proclamation in the 1960s: “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress demands it.” (Which he, in turn, had copied from the avant-garde writer Lautreamont, who had died almost a century earlier.)
Why, given the potential for humiliation, do plagiarists run the risk? Are people doing it more, now? Or is it, rather, now just a matter of more people getting caught?
Given Lesko’s evident passion on the topic of plagiarism as a moral transgression – embodied most strikingly, perhaps, in his color-coded War on Plagiarism Threat Level Analysis – I had to wonder if the doors of Plagiary would be open to scholars not sharing his perspective.
Was it worth the while of, say, a Foucauldian to offer him a paper?
“It may be that I’m a bit more conservative than some scholars,” he conceded. But he points out that manuscripts submitted to Plagiary undergo a double-blind review process. They are examined by three reviewers – most of them, but not all, from the journal’s editorial board.
There is no ideological or theoretical litmus test, and he’s actively seeking contributions from people you might not expect. “I’m willing to consider articles from plagiarists,” he said.
That’s certainly throwing the door wide open. You would probably want to vet their work pretty carefully, though.