Is the fight against plagiarism hopeless?

As an educator, I have become painfully aware of how easy it is to write an essay nowadays. If the essay seeks to answer a question, as most do, type the question in ChatGPT, and voila! you have a draft. You then read through it and correct any obvious mistakes. The final step is going to Google Scholar, typing in some vague concepts that will return some references, including them throughout the text —preferably using a citing software such as Endnote — and there you have your masterpiece.

Admittedly, this essay will not exactly be on par with Montaigne’s work, but it will probably get you a passing grade. And perhaps more importantly, it will be absolutely free of plagiarism. The professor will probably run your essay through a plagiarism checker software (e.g. Grammarly), and it will come out clean, even if you may have no idea what the essay is about.

Since your class is likely to have more than one hundred students, it is unlikely that the instructor will know if you really believe (or even understand) what you wrote; the instructor simply does not have the time to personally ask you about it. If you manage to pull this trick, you will have excelled at mindless non-plagiarism.

Hue and cry

In recent times, much has been made of plagiarism in educational institutions. Professor Nicholas Giordano claims that “the essence of academia has been corrupted by far-left ideologues who push a political agenda that weakens the worth of our institutions”, and the inevitable result is rampant plagiarism.

That may be, but this misses an important point: in the grand scheme of things, plagiarism may not be very relevant. As my example above purports to show, there are worse things in academia, and we ought to focus on those, instead of petty passages for which the author forgot to include some quotation marks.

Plagiarism is a violation of intellectual property rights. Yet, libertarian philosophers have long argued that “intellectual property” is a meaningless concept. As per their argument, physical objects are scarce and can only be owned by one person at a time; in contrast, intellectual property is non-rivalrous, as one person's use of an idea doesn’t prevent another from using it simultaneously. Ideas, therefore, do not have owners.

Nowadays, in our culture wars, conservatives have become crusaders against plagiarism. But not long ago, liberals were the hysterical ones on a similar issue. Under the bogus concept of “cultural appropriation”, liberals went on witch hunts denouncing anybody who borrowed cultural items (e.g., dress, music, dialect, cuisine, etc.) from other cultures.

This goes on to show that the obsession with plagiarism — and cultural appropriation, for that matter — can be easily weaponised. The recent sacking of Harvard President Claudine Gay is a case in point. Conservatives were outraged by her spineless approach to rampant antisemitism amongst Harvard students, but they could not find a way to oust her. Ultimately, they looked for some dirt in her past, and found it.


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As the Washington Post reports, “in some places [of her writings], it appears that Gay took verbatim wording — ranging from sentences to paragraphs — from academics she cited, but without placing that text in quotation marks. In others, she appears to have paraphrased or lightly modified the texts she drew on, without citing the source in the same sentence or paragraph. In a few cases, she did not make any mention of her source.” That was all that was needed for this professor to be sent home, while the mindless kid who turned in the essay written by ChatGPT had the last laugh.

In perspective

Is plagiarism a victimless crime? I do not think so. While libertarians have some interesting arguments on this issue, I still believe intellectual property is a meaningful concept, and academic institutions must strive to uphold it. But things must be kept in proportion. High student-to-professor ratio and the mindless use of Chat GPT are, in my view, more pressing concerns.

And yet, I cannot help but admit that I am not losing any sleep because of Gay’s sacking. This time around, she was the victim. But I dare to plagiarise a first-century Jewish teacher who once said that he who kills by the sword dies by the sword. As Christopher Rufo reports, Gay had a history of bullying tactics in order to promote her political agenda.

Liberals may be upset that this time, one of their own was sacked from Harvard because of a petty offence. Yet, this is largely a turning of the tables, as not long ago, Lawrence Summer was forced to resign as Harvard’s president because he made some minor comments deemed offensive to liberals. What goes around comes around (pardon the plagiarism again!).

The fight against plagiarism is not hopeless, but it must be reconsidered. First, it must be acknowledged that plagiarism is not an ideological issue. People on both sides of the political aisle do it. Second, since the fight against plagiarism can easily become weaponised, a sense of proportionality must prevail. This includes establishing differences between, say, cutting and pasting wholesale from Wikipedia and simply forgetting to name an author when referring to an idea.

Third — and perhaps most importantly — we must begin to reckon with the idea that the concern with plagiarism may be outdated. Far more concerning is the challenge presented by Artificial Intelligence. For all her faults, I feel less offended by Claudine Gay’s act of piracy than by the student who got a passing grade in class and never plagiarised, and yet knows nothing about the course, all thanks to ChatGPT.

Gabriel Andrade is a university professor originally from Venezuela. He writes about politics, philosophy, history, religion, and psychology.

Image: Pexels


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  • Frank den Hartog
    commented 2024-02-21 12:42:10 +1100
    I agree that weaponizing plagiarism to achieve much dirtier political agendas is poor practice. But I also believe that this strategy is mostly successful because most people have a poor understanding of what plagiarism is and is not. And that includes many academics including prof Andrade. From a legal perspective, plagiarism is copyright infringement. Copyright is only one form of intellectual property. It recognizes that creating a certain amount of novel text requires a lot of work and creativity, and an author should therefore be protected against copycats benefitting (e.g. financially) from it without having invested themselves and without giving the original author a fair share. This is often confused with a more academic definition of plagiarism (and prof Andrade mixes them up), which is passing on an idea as your own though you got the idea from someone else. This is not a copyright infringement, as an idea is not something that can be copyrighted. Nor is it a patent infringement, as an idea cannot be patented either (for an idea to become a patent, i.e. another type of intellectual property, it has to be developed into the description of an actual invention, i.e. a new machine, method, or system, which requires considerable investment and creativity). Passing on an idea as your own is nevertheless acknowledged as academic misconduct: it is basically (implicitly) lying about the facts. So prof Andrade did not plagiarize the first-century Jewish teacher as this teacher’s text is not copyrighted and prof Andrade acknowledges that any idea behind the text is not his. The same goes for his use of the expression “what goes around comes around”: this has become an accepted idiom in English and by no means do we need to refer to the original author for every broadly accepted expression. This brings me to my last point, about students using ChatGPT and the like. Unless a learning outcome of the course is “how to write an essay”, I do not see any issue with students using ChatGPT for writing an essay for a course that has e.g. “how to use concepts from the electrical engineering literature in creating new ideas” (or so) as a learning outcome. In many ways, ChatGPT is not much else than Google Search, but with the results provided in, well, the form of an essay. The student still needs to do a lot of literature reading and research to get rid of the mistakes made by ChatGPT, and to discover any ideas that ChatGPT has not properly attributed. In many ways, this is not much different from the work that a student has to do anyway to prepare for the writing of a good essay. In my own courses (I teach cybersecurity), I just assume that students use ChatGPT: I raise the pass level, and reduce more marks for small mistakes. And still report a missing reference as (minor) academic misconduct. This includes referring to ChatGPT as the creator of the text: although OpenAI (the owner of ChatGPT, which is just a machine) allows free use of the output of ChatGPT (and thus there can be no copyright infringement), an academic should not create the impression that they themselves created the text. Because that would be cheating. See also European Commission, NEWS BLOG, 20 February 2023, “Intellectual Property in ChatGPT”.
  • Gabriel Andrade
    published this page in The Latest 2024-02-21 11:01:56 +1100