Friday, December 11, 2009

An Open Letter to Students Concerning Plagiarism

Dear Students,

Sorry to interrupt, I know how busy you are right now and how stressful the end of the semester is with papers and exams. I know you've been listening to me go on and on all semester, but I have one last thing I really need to say. Please do not plagiarize.

This is not some high-horse lecture about intellectual property, academic integrity, or personal growth, this is heart-to-heart advice from your Uncle Steve because I know you are in a vulnerable position. You are facing too much work, too little time, you are exhausted from a long semester and do not know how you are going to get everything done. You are nervous about your grades because you know that both the job market and grad school admission is getting more difficult, you know it is one of the first things your parents will ask about when you get home, and you are worried that your professors will think less of you if you do not work up to what you think are their expectations. Lack of sleep and not eating well have clouded your judgment and from this point of view it will seem very tempting to cut corners, especially since you see other people doing it and getting away with it. Still, please don't.

First of all, you just aren't that good at it. I've been reading your work all semester and I know what to expect from you. I know your writing style, I know the sort of things you've been thinking about from your comments in class, I generally know what sort of other classes you've been taking and how much background you have in complex topics in other fields. Yes, it would thrill me to get a really good paper from you, the sort of work that shows you were as excited about the material as I am, the sort of work that shows some kernel of insight just waiting to be unpacked through the years of experience to come, the sort of work that opens up discussions we could have next semester over a pizza because you just can't let this go.

But that paper looks a lot different from a plagiarized paper; it sounds like you, it sounds like an enthusiastic undergrad who has gotten a real glimpse of something, but is incomplete and sloppy in the ways an undergrad paper should be, ways that would allow new doors to be opened, it is not the polished work of a professional scholar whose years of training under experts and whose doctor dissertation required a collecting of evidence you would have no sense of. I know you haven't read the footnotes in Rawl's A Theory of Justice. I know that you do not understand general relativity. I know that you do not know about the non-standard interpretations of the later Plato. But I do know how to use all the same tools you would use in finding the material to cut and paste and it is actually quite easy nowadays to get right to the text you would plagiarize from. It's not that hard to detect and not that hard to gather the incriminating evidence. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes.

Second, even if you did get away with it, it won't end up making that much of a difference in the end. By this point of the semester, so much of your grade is already determined that the difference between a B+ and a C- paper is quite small and even if it does move you a couple of +/- grades in one direction or another, that fact will most likely have no effect on who you marry, what job you get, what you name your kids, where you go for vacation when you are 48, nothing. I know grades seem a huge deal right now and professors are in part to blame because we are insecure and think that without the threat of grades hanging over your heads, you won't respect us. But in truth your college GPA means very little in the lives of most people. But getting busted for plagiarism could mean a lot. It is something that is becoming a show issue and you will be treated harshly to make a point. There is so little reward that it is absolutely not worth the risk.

Finally, your professors are not "the man," we are not looking to nail you. We like you (well, most of you anyway). We want you to succeed. We want you to keep in touch by e-mail and come back to campus ten years from now for alumni weekend and tell us funny stories about your time in college and about how you got to be wherever it is you will end up. And you know what, we won't care or remember that paper. To be honest, we will have forgotten about it long before next semester. We will not think less of you because you handed in one piece of garbage, we will think that you must have been overtaxed with work or that we gave a bad assignment. We will still like you. Attach a note to the bad paper telling us that you know it is not your best work and that if you had more time it would have been better and that you had hoped to take it in this other more interesting direction. We write papers all the time, often at the last minute for conferences. We understand, it happens to us too. We've just learned the trick of saying at the beginning, "this is a work in process" -- "in process" is professor-speak for "inferior work I hope to do well someday."

But when you plagiarize, you put us in a horrible position. We don't want to turn you in, in part because we want the best for you, but also because we don't want to have to deal with the process. We are tired too. It's been a really long semester and we just want to get our grades in so we can get to the plans we've made for break. And now you make us have to spend our time searching for your sources, documenting evidence, and explaining how we knew this had to be plagiarized. We have so much to do right now that we don't need the headache. You just made so much more work for us because you decided not to just turn in a lousy paper. We resent the fact that I now have all this extra work because you didn't want to do the work you knew you were supposed to do. You write a paper, I read a paper, that's the deal. Because you decided not to hold up your end of the bargain I now pay the price. Screw you! It is frustrating at a time when I'm exhausted and pissy, too.

But more than that, it feels like betrayal. All semester, you've been great in the classroom with interesting things to say. I looked forward to giving you a good grade and seeing you around the campus and now you go and do this to me? ME: the one who spent the time preparing for class, answering your e-mails at awkward hours, giving you extensions and offering to look at drafts. I was more than happy to write a letter of recommendation for that internship for you when I had a stack of blue books on my desk and a meeting for little league coaches to go to, and you do this to me?

So, students, please. Give me shoddy work if you must. It's the season of generosity. I know how tough it is for you right now because it's that tough for us too. Do us all a favor and try your best to get in the best work you can even if your best right now isn't that good. For all of our sakes, just don't plagiarize. Please.


Uncle Steve

p.s. Do try to get sleep, eat well, and take a break to get some exercise -- it will make you more efficient, improve the quality of your work, and keep you from getting sick.