The Ethics of Plagiarism

by Dexter Findley

To put it bluntly, there are no ethics when it comes to plagiarism. Copying someone else's work or getting someone to write it for you is deeply unethical and is one of the Cardinal Sins of university life; to the extent that some unis will kick you out on your first offence, if it's serious enough. Compare this to their stance on students who are involved in crime and drugs (strangely lax, as long as they don't indulge on their turf), and you begin to see how seriously they take it. At its core, it's anti-academic and anti-learning; and while you may gain a few grade points, you won't have actually benefitted at all in an educational sense.

But what does 'plagiarism' consist of, exactly? How do you define it? After all, isn't all work based on something? Aren't we all, in a sense, 'standing on the shoulders of giants'?

The classic response is that it is perfectly reasonable to relay someone else's ideas and use them in your own argument, as long as you state the fact, usually by formally referencing them (the Harvard Referencing System is the mode du jour for UK unis).

But what if you ask a tutor, or a friend, to look over your work, to check for grammar and spelling? They'll go uncredited, usually; and without their input you may have received a lower mark. But I doubt many people would count this as plagiarism.

Now, let's take it one step further. So you ask your tutor/friend to look over you work, and they duly do so. But they find a critical flaw in your argument, or something you've overlooked. They give you a suggestion for improvement, and you duly act upon it. Your paper is marked and you get a first. Happy days. Now, is that plagiarism? After all, the genesis for a critical part of your argument came from someone else, uncredited.

Basically, there's a sliding scale of personal-vs-external work input, ranging from asking others to be human spellcheckers to the wholesale thievery of another person's words and ideas. Like all sliding scales, where do you draw the line? There is no black-white binary we can easily define.

The issue is compounded when you consider students whose first language is not English. As good as their command of conversational English may be, they may have a fundamental difficulty in conveying their thoughts and arguments in an effective manner. Would it be wrong for them to ask a tutor to help? To have someone check their work, to iron out inconsistencies and improve the clarity of writing, often to the point where the final product is vastly different from the original? Some would argue that the person editing their work is merely 'teasing out' the non-native speaker's core argument, rather than 'writing it for them', but the reality of the situation differs case by case. As a rule of thumb, if the tutor is doing anything but helping you clarify your language and structure, you're doing it wrong.

Policies on the above differ considerably from institution to institution. And while all unis are particularly strict on plagiarism, some take their fervour for originality to inquisition-like levels. From personal experience, I know of people who have been called up for plagiarism for incorrect referencing, which looks rather unforgiving however you cook it.

Clearly, there is a broad difference of views on the matter. Grey areas abound. But from this mass of uncertainty we can distil a few drops of solid advice:

- If you use another person's idea or argument in your paper, or even just mention it, reference it!

- Regardless of how many eyes pass over your paper before you submit it, the core content must be your own.

- If you're not a native speaker, and you decide to have a tutor proofread your text, acknowledge them in some way at the beginning/end of the paper.

- Basing your paper around so-called 'model answers' is at best educationally misleading and at worst demonstrates your lack of independent thought: use them at your own risk.

- Getting someone to write your paper for you contravenes universal law and is a despicable thing to do. Ultimately, the only person you're cheating is yourself.

For users of the site, you can check out our stance on the subject here.