Plagiarism is like that; it’s an insider’s obsession. If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no. But if you’re a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some) and if you’re a politician it may not occur to you, as it did not at one time to Joe Biden, that you’re doing anything wrong when you appropriate the speech of a revered statesman.
And if you’re a student, plagiarism will seem to be an annoying guild imposition without a persuasive rationale (who cares?); for students, learning the rules of plagiarism is worse than learning the irregular conjugations of a foreign language. It takes years, and while a knowledge of irregular verbs might conceivably come in handy if you travel, knowledge of what is and is not plagiarism in this or that professional practice is not something that will be of very much use to you unless you end up becoming a member of the profession yourself. It follows that students who never quite get the concept right are by and large not committing a crime; they are just failing to become acclimated to the conventions of the little insular world they have, often through no choice of their own, wandered into. It’s no big moral deal; which doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that plagiarism shouldn’t be punished — if you’re in our house, you’ve got to play by our rules — just that what you’re punishing is a breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe.Amazingly enough, this professor and former academic dean does not understand the purpose of student assignments. A book or magazine article or encyclopedia entry is supposed to inform or provide entertainment, so you can imagine different rules regarding originality and attribution, but that's not the point of a student paper. Students write papers in order to demonstrate what they've learned, what their own skills are, etc. When students plagiarize, they receive grades that reflect another person's knowledge and skills. And then their transcripts tell people downstream the wrong thing. Plagiarizing students wind up with jobs and scholarships and positions in colleges and graduate schools, etc., that aren't merited by their own knowledge and skills. It's not fair to competitors whose grades do reflect their knowledge and skills. And it's not fair to the public either, because we don't want the most skilled plagiarists becoming our teachers and doctors and lawyers. We want people with the requisite skills.
Um, isn't all this completely obvious? But to go on in the same vein..."Not fair" is a moral concept. Nothing to do with conjugating irregular verbs. Not a matter of arbitrary conventions. QED
While it's obviously a moral problem to plagiarize--a crime, so to speak--what's the appropriate punishment? Do academics punish too much because within their own world originality has such tremendous importance? Had Fish raised that question, he would have been on firmer ground, but then I guess he wouldn't have been earning his keep as resident academic contrarian and provocateur at the NYT website.