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The word "citation" is spelled out using wooden blocks. Other blocks featuring various letters of the alphabet are strewn around.

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Suddenly, we have plagiarism experts popping up everywhere, the same way we acquired infectious disease experts in 2020, Ukraine experts in 2022 and Israel-Palestine experts in 2023.

Suddenly, everyone is weighing in on questions about plagiarism in academic writing: “Was example X plagiarism?” and “Even if it was technically plagiarism, was it an offense great enough to warrant a firing or resignation?”

Because everyone more or less reads and writes, everyone is entitled to have views about citation practices, but I am writing as someone who wrote my first grant proposal to study plagiarism in 2003 and in 2009 published the results of research as a book called My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell University Press). I feel I have a little more obligation to weigh in, and I am urging us to attend to the moral—not technical—dimensions of the practices of giving credit to others for their work.

Of course, we are talking about plagiarism in January 2024 only because a bad actor cast a wide net for vile purposes and netted a lot of bycatch. I am disturbed by the weaponization of plagiarism and the targeting of Harvard’s first Black woman president by someone who deplores any efforts at redressing past inequities by attending to representation in the present. Let me start by stating that I deplore the politicization of these plagiarism dragnets. I’m criticizing lax citation practices no matter who engages in them.

Plagiarism, defined as “appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit,” is an example of research misconduct and may be excused if it is inadvertent. Far more serious is fabrication or falsification of data. But the antidote to plagiarism is careful attention to citation practices. This involves notions of intellectual property, a type of property far less tangible than a purse, a car or a plot of land, but arguably even more precious in the 21st century.

Plagiarism differs from other types of intellectual property violation, copyright and trademark infringement; the latter two have financial and economic implications. In the case of academic citation, we are conferring honor and recognizing someone’s moral rights, not necessarily making sure they get paid.

It must be reiterated that academics who study writing understand the wide variation in norms, enforcement, penalties and training for citation practices. I know that these norms vary by country, period and discipline. I know that all humans constantly quote others, and that the illusion of originality is a Romantic residue. Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin observed that “the word in language is half someone else’s,” and linguistic anthropologists spend a lot of time demonstrating intertextuality and interdiscursivity, the use of others’ texts.

I know that editors given the same manuscript will have different assessments of its alignment with accepted citational practices. We hear old examples of friends and foes alike and their exoneration or punishment: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joe Biden, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Melania Trump. An investigation from The New York Times found its former reporter Jayson Blair fabricated material, copied others’ words and misrepresented his own whereabouts, committing fraud, fabrication and plagiarism. Academic writers, journalists, artists and public figures may be held to different standards.

It is impossible to trace every influence, every inspiration, every source. In my 2009 book, I wrote about the theoretical underpinnings of our norms of citation and ideas of authorship and originality and the ways students may either not understand or choose to disregard those norms. The norms are inconsistent and are certainly not very much upheld. I resist “plagiarism fundamentalism” that urges us to expel students at the first instances of plagiarism. I don’t assume students’ negative intentions but give them the benefit of the doubt. Rebecca Moore Howard, who reminded us that we “stand in the shadows of giants,” named “patchwriting,” the practice common to budding writers of interspersing others’ words. I distinguish deliberate cheating in what I call “the game of school” from imperfect mastery of academic conventions for citation. I have even written that student plagiarism is a matter of education, not ethics.

And yet.

People in higher education are usually expected not only to transmit knowledge but to produce new knowledge, at least at high-prestige research institutions. This is the case certainly at all of the most elite institutions, where faculty are expected to be teacher-scholars. This is true even for administrators, despite the need for entirely different skills in order to lead institutions.

The currency of academic renown is recognition, crudely measured by citation indexes.

As such, it is rather shocking for the academic leader of Harvard University, one of the most illustrious institutions of higher education in the world, arguably, to get her citations wrong. It doesn’t seem deliberate, but it is careless.

Giving credit is not only a technical requirement. I see it, as Europeans do, as a moral matter. Authors and other creators have moral rights. Those who care about their obligations to others should bend over backward to get it right, not because they are afraid of being caught, but because scholarship is a huge network and we are given the gift of others’ work. We repay it not only by buying their books and articles, but with gratitude and acknowledgment. This is not only a matter of professional ethics, but of how we see ourselves benefiting from the hard, often-unrewarded work of others. (Scholars rarely make much money directly from their writing; at best, this contributes to their earning of the ever rarer tenure and promotion.)

In Jewish texts, “giving credit where credit is due” is seen as a sacred obligation. According to Rabbi Ari Enkin, “The Talmud teaches that whoever reports something in the name of the one they heard it from brings redemption to the world.”

As we look around at all the newfound examples of plagiarism, excusing some and vilifying others, I’d like to plead instead for the moral and ethical imperative to try our best to be careful, to honor others for their life’s work, to trace their words—when we know, when we can—with awe and dignity. Not so we won’t get caught. Not because a mechanical service might flag our work.

But because it’s the right thing to do.

The case I’m making is that we examine the virtue, the morality, of citing. Creative Commons supports voluntary sharing of people’s intellectual property; most levels of their licenses include the requirement that the creator receive attribution. Whether you are quoting, reusing, satirizing or remixing, the idea that people are offering their words and ideas freely does not absolve the user from acknowledging the gift.

Resorting to hair-splitting discussions of the letter of the law has its place. But idealistically, in the realm of academic writing and citation, I’d like to urge a reconsideration of the spirit of the law, or more precisely, the norms, which stem from recognition of the precious labor of fellows. You don’t have to cite every influence, every source of inspiration, as I try to do (the sources in my new book run to nearly 14,000 words). But when we benefit from others’ work, words or ideas, we should honor them. Not for fear of detection. Not for fear of punishment. But because we embrace the central imperative to honor our fellow humans.

We should give them all the credit we can.

Susan D. Blum is a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, holding concurrent appointments as a fellow in the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies, the Institute for Educational Initiatives, the Eck Institute for Global Health, and the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families. Blum’s books include Schoolishness: Alienated Education and the Quest for Authentic, Joyful Learning (forthcoming from Cornell University Press), Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) (West Virginia University Press, 2020), and My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell University Press, 2009).

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