That Plagiarism Thing…Again

Happily, in an Honors College plagiarism isn’t a rampant problem, so my work in policing students is fairly light duty. But something I tend to use as a talking point when I’ve called in someone for “processing” in an academic honesty case is this: plagiarism corrupts the whole of the academic enterprise of free thought. That sounds like moral grandstanding, but for anyone who makes a living trading ideas with colleagues, it’s quite simply the truth.

Plagiarism is often seen as a victimless crime by freshmen, most of whom commit such deeds merely out of desperation. This is why it’s essential for every college and university to have a rigorous process to teach incoming students about the boundaries of intellectual discourse. The truth is, however, it’s not really a conceptual problem relating to intellectual property. Virtually all students I have dealt with in this context are indeed aware of what they are doing—taking someone else’s ideas as passing them off as their own. Their excuses tend to reveal something else: problems with time management, insufficient preparation for college-level writing, fear of failure that unfortunately leads to a worse kind of failure in the end. This is really just the background noise, as far as I’m concerned, and not the heart of the problem. Most freshmen once caught, penalized, and instructed move on all the wiser and commit no further infractions.

The dangerous element in plagiarism is what happens at the level of a senior thesis or a graduate degree, when we’re dealing with an attempt at original research supervised by an institution of higher learning. This has really come home to me in the case of Monica Crowley, President-Elect Trump’s choice for a high-level National Security position in his cabinet. As Politico’s Alex Caton and Grace Watkins report (Jan. 9, 2017), Crowley apparently plagiarized several sources in her Ph. D. dissertation for Columbia University. This simply astounds me. Part of the dissertation game is to show just how citation-studded a work the budding scholar can produce, and yet it seems Crowley repeatedly violated Columbia’s own rules concerning both intentional and unintentional plagiarism by failing to cite sources and by using barely altered text in her thesis.  This was in the year 2000, i.e., well within the period when all such theses are searchable texts. Why take such risks? Caton and Wakins do a good job of what we plagiarism czars do in such cases: they lay out side by side comparisons for the readers to judge what is going on. And it’s very clear: theft.

This revelation comes after a CNN report that Crowley did exactly the same kind of thing in her 2012 book, What the (Bleep) Just Happened, where once again the theft did not consist in a few minor undocumented liftings, but a hefty pillaging of over 50 sources, including that freshman favorite, Wikipedia. CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski again lays out parallel passages for those capable of evidence-based thinking and not content with mere accusations. There is a lot of evidence; and it doesn’t look good.

This goes to show that someone who gets away with plagiarism will not just be tempted to cut corners again, but may decide this is the smart way to go. Both Columbia University and Harper Collins (whose imprint Broadside Books published Crowley’s book) now have a serious problem on their hands. Crowley is clearly shameless enough to bluster through this, but the institutions have something truly at stake here—the credibility of their brand.

The irony is that when a Trump Administration spokesperson lauds Crowley’s “exceptional insight and thoughtful work” and discredits any criticism as “a politically motivated attack,” it’s all too plain to see who the political hacks are. For any academic, Crowley has been outed as a crook, plain and simple. And now we have a shining worst-case scenario for all our college students to ponder: see what happens when you lose your moral bearings in a scholarly context.

A case like this shows us what can happen when someone has more ambition than intelligence: it is very easy to get caught, and very hard to deny instances of theft so readily apparent. How is someone caught engaging in such deception supposed to have a role in National Security communications? One shudders to think what starting from so cynical a position will mean for the next four years.

 

 

 

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About richarda18

Associate Professor of Classical Studies The Honors College at the University of Houston
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