What is the price of plagiarism?
When someone steals another's words, the penalties can vary widely.
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In New Haven, Conn., the Executive Committee at Yale University hears about 35 cases of academic dishonesty per year, according to Jill Cutler, assistant dean and secretary of the committee. Yet the problem is greater than that figure lets on. "There are lots of professors who read a paper, know something is wrong, and decide not to take it up," she says. "Sometimes people think of it as a 'teachable moment.' But it's a lot of work [to make an accusation of plagiarism], and you don't always find sources to prove it happened."Skip to next paragraph
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The average punishment for students found guilty of cheating at Yale is a two-semester suspension, Ms. Cutler says. The average punishment is the same at Ms. Viswanathan's institution, Harvard, where the plagiarism policy is outlined in a one-hour lecture during freshman orientation.
But consequences at other campuses vary. Aaron Albert, a freshman who works in the academic dean's office at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., doesn't pause when recalling his school's plagiarism policy. "There's only one punishment for plagiarism here.... If you're accused and convicted of plagiarism, you're dismissed permanently from the school," he says, "People know - if you're gonna plagiarize, you're taking your academic career in your own hands."
At Haverford College in Pennsylvania, which also has an honor code, penalties are recommended by a student Honor Council and can range from suspension or failing grades to more inventive sanctions, such as a public apology or composing an essay about plagiarism. Such remedies and consequences are based on ideals of education and restorative justice, says Joe Tolliver, Haverford's dean of students. "The process is about helping [the student] see the mistake they made and be reinstated into the community," he says.
That type of early recognition can be important, since cheating can have serious financial and even criminal consequences in other areas of life.
"In an academic context, it's really about shame," says Corynne McSherry, an intellectual property attorney in San Francisco and author of "Who Owns Academic Work? Battling for Control of Intellectual Property." "You might be kicked out of your department, or if you're a student, you might get a failing grade. With copyright, you could be taken to court and have to pay damages."
Though plagiarism is not itself a legal offense, many aspects of the act can be construed as copyright infringement, says Glynn Lunney, a law professor at Tulane University. Because anything written is automatically protected by the Copyright Act of 1976, copiers can always be liable for the harm suffered by a person whose work was copied, he says. If an author has a registered copyright, copiers can be liable for legal fees and damages, which range from $750 to $30,000 per work copied. Those fines can rise to $150,000 if the copying is particularly egregious and willfully done.
"Copyright infringement for moneymaking work happens all the time," Mr. Lunney says, adding that the rule is the same whether it's a case like Viswanathan's or Napster's music file-sharing. "That's what all copyright cases are about - it's always in the moneymaking context."
Still, copyright infringement only occurs when one has copied a substantial amount of another's work, says Rochelle Dreyfuss, a law professor at New York University.
"There's a lot that is not copyrightable, like broad concepts," she says. "Similarly, taking facts is also not taking anything that's not copyrightable. And sometimes, if something's written in a very factual, very stripped-down way, the words might not even be copyrightable."
Copying may also lead to fraud charges - which can carry criminal penalties. "Most publishing contracts have a clause where the purported author of the work promises it's their work," says Lunney. If not, the case can go to a district, or even a federal, attorney.
Yet even in cases that do not reach the courtroom, penalties can be enormous. "Whatever legal remedies are available, at the end of the day, the author's reputation is at stake - and that can be very hard professionally," Lunney says.