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Perspectives: A Close Call with Plagiarism

Last week, I submitted an article to the McGill Daily. (Just broadening my horizons, not switching turfs.) When the editor told me that I had used too many of another’s words and as a result, the article could not be published, I was shocked. Had I really crossed the line to plagiarism?

A 2009 study at the University of British Columbia found that students who plagiarize or cheat have “dark” personality traits, most commonly psychopathy. The study’s author, psychology Professor Delroy Paulhus, recommended that universities should treat plagiarism as a mental disorder.

Me? A psychopath? It doesn’t match my personality traits or my strong ethical values. I still can’t come to terms with the fact that laziness and sloppy work resulted in a close call with plagiarism. I am reluctant to even talk about this incident because, like many other students, I’m hesitant to admit that I came so close to cheating. It’s a mistake I won’t make again.

Apparently, I’m not the first. Researchers at Guelph University and Rutgers University revealed in a 2006 study that over 53 per cent of Canadians admitted to plagiarism and 18 per cent to cheating on tests at post-secondary schools. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper was accused of plagiarizing his 2010 throne speech from former Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Harper was also accused of plagiarizing a speech he gave as opposition leader, urging Canada to send troops into Iraq. His speechwriter eventually was forced to resign.

The fact that plagiarism is so widespread-among politicians, students, and even professors-makes me wonder why it’s so appealing. Is it laziness, or is it a deeper societal problem?

One issue is that students often don’t realize they are cheating. Letting your parents edit your work (or write it for you) is plagiarism. Working in groups to solve a project, when the professor has forbidden it, is cheating. A survey of 20,000 students compiled by the Canadian Council on Learning found that students of our generation are more likely than those of others to cheat, and less likely to call it cheating.

Another problem is the accessibility of cheating. Internet-based cheating increased by 81 per cent between 2003 and 2006 according to a survey conducted by the CCL. Copying and pasting from an article has never been so easy.

But the biggest problem is our failure to value our own words and work. People cheat not because they are unethical or too busy to come up with their own ideas, but because they don’t value their own opinions. The thoughts of supposedly reputable others seem more important; one’s own original thoughts seem not to measure up in comparison. While discussing ideas for a class paper, my Shakespeare professor didn’t just tell us not to plagiarize. He told us not to disrespect our own intelligence.  “Borrowing” an idea from someone else only means that we don’t believe sufficiently in ourselves.

An organizer of the Rutgers/Guelph study said the best way to deal with plagiarism is to implement an honour code in schools. But students know cheating is wrong. It’s more important to encourage them to develop their own ideas and take them seriously when they vocalize those ideas.

The excuses are endless but at the root of cheating lies an under-appreciation of your own self-worth. Rather than just inserting the section “McGill values academic integrity” onto every syllabus, it would be more effective if professors and students discussed what academic integrity really is: an understanding that my ideas can only be authentic if I work hard to ensure that they’re my own.