What is the price of plagiarism?
When someone steals another's words, the penalties can vary widely.
If you've kept up with the publishing industry lately, you've heard of Kaavya Viswanathan. The Harvard sophomore got a $500,000 advance from publishing firm Little, Brown, and Co. for her book, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life." But her own life took a sour turn after she was accused of copying several passages of her novel either directly or indirectly from books by Megan McCafferty, Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, and Salman Rushdie. It's the most high-profile accusation of plagiarism in a recent spate of scandals that have implicated a variety of figures in a variety of fields.Skip to next paragraph
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Last week, Raytheon CEO William Swanson endured public embarrassment and a pay cut when he was outed for copying some of the rules in his book, "Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management," from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, humor columnist Dave Barry, and an obscure World War II-era book by W.J. King. A month ago, researchers from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., unveiled their proof that Russian President Vladimir Putin had copied whole sections of William R. King and David I. Cleland's "Strategic Planning and Policy" in his dissertation. Three years earlier, the newspaper industry had suffered a blow when The New York Times's Jayson Blair was shown to have copied or fabricated dozens of his stories.
Whether in the professional world or the classroom, plagiarism appears to be everywhere. And according to experts, it's on the rise.
"The main reason is the advent of the Internet," says Donald McCabe, a professor at Rutgers University who has studied plagiarism in secondary and higher education for more than a decade. According to his research, 58 percent of high school students admitted to having committed an act of plagiarism in the past year.
"A lot of students in their early education do not get a very good grounding from their instructors about when it's acceptable to use somebody else's material," says Jane Kirtley, who teaches Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. "There's also a sense among students today that if it's something they can find on the Internet, then by definition, they can use it freely without attributing it to anybody."
The Internet provides plenty of temptations for would-be plagiarists, from essay-writing services to millions of web pages. The easy availability of such resources can cloud judgment and lead to misuse or abuse of information. "On the part of students, there's an eerie logic to justify cheating," says Denise Pope, a lecturer at the School of Education at Stanford University and author. "It's three o'clock in the morning, you're exhausted, you've worked hard ... rather than getting a zero, you'd take your chances with plagiarism."
The problem is even more pronounced among honors students, who often believe they have the most to lose when it comes to grades, Ms. Pope says. "Students believe their parents would be less upset to find out they cheated if they get the A in the end," she says. "They sort of convince themselves that this is what needs to be done, even if it's wrong."
How wrong plagiarism is perceived to be, though, often depends on the immediate consequences. At Evanston Township High School near Chicago, students receive a copy of the school's plagiarism policy at the beginning of each school year. "If they plagiarize a whole paper, they get an F for the semester. If it's just a major portion, they get an F for the quarter," says Janet Irons, an aide in the English department. All the school's teachers are trained to use Internet plagiarism-detection services like Turnitin.com, which scans papers for similar passages online.
Professor McCabe says that even in high schools without such a protracted policy, F's or suspensions are often standard punishments for plagiarism. But almost half of the teachers he interviewed say they've observed cheating but have not reported it. "It often comes down to 'he said, she said' proof, and that isn't really enough," he explains.