Plagiarism and Intent

Blog, Education, Marco Navarro-Genie

Margaret Wente’s woes at the Globe and Mail over plagiarised words in one of her op-eds is a good opportunity to examine consequences for plagiarising. Some are calling for her head.

There is a variety of plagiarism policies in different universities, for example.  Most have strict and harsh wordings regarding students submitting other people’s work as their own.  Yet, in the practice, there is significantly more leniency.

One can always tell when a place is serious about dealing with the plagiarism problem if they are willing to deal with the question of intent. Most do not.  It takes time and energy to devise solid and realistic policies and university administrators find it easier to surf the web and “discover” how other universities are doing it (or not doing it).  Yes, there are plagiarised policies on plagiarism. Some even plagiarise mission statements outright.

Intention is  crucial because it separates the clueless and sloppy plagiarists from those who do mean to derive advantage from other people’s work –which would cover a lot of students and many a Dean.

But determining intent is very difficult.  It requires time and effort as well as commitment, and faculty have very little institutional support on these endeavours.  The result is that most faculty members end up “giving the benefit of the doubt” to the suspected plagiarists, especially since most perpetrators do not have the conscience to admit guilt. So, we find tough talk on the school calendar, but not much by way of teeth in reality.  There is little willingness to search for and establish willingness.

With such attitude, plagiarism quickly becomes a transgression of ignorance.  It’s the way to sweep intent under the carpet, pretend that plagiarism is really not tolerated and to go on doing little about it. Most universities don’t keep institutional numbers about the problem. Why bother?

It took Phil Baker, then Dean of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta, several days  to grow a conscience last summer after having lifted and delivered publicly whole tracks of someone else’s commencement speech from another medical school.  Baker and the university tried to ride it out:  a top academic willingly and openly plagiarised and tried to stay in his position of authority over other faculty members with the university’s blessing –until the pressures proved too large to resist. Yet, as far as intent, this was a slam-dunk.

Baker’s example is indicative of how many, including universities, talk tough but are not committed to living by their words on plagiarism.

Margaret Wente was in a hurry, got sloppy, made a mistake, confused her notes, failed to quote, didn’t double-check sources, forgot her due diligence. But no intent to be fraudulent has been established. She’s no Baker.

In the scale of public good and consequences for wrong doing, universities ought to set the best example since they are places of “excellence” supported by public money. Since they often mint the leaders and professionals of tomorrow, the mould should be kept as pristine as possible.

Wente will likely not be fired (and arguably shouldn’t be), but Phil Baker only lost his job as dean. He kept his well-paid professorship.  He will have to live with the murmurs of colleagues in the corridors and students in his classes.

However, such shaming doesn’t work with students, even in university, when such significant numbers among them are doing the same, and when a dean thinks it’s okay to receive the applause for someone else’s speech.