Adventures in Ethics and Science

Taking it personally

Today I had my first (non-virtual) class meetings of the spring semester. There’s nothing like having every available seat filled and then having folks stream in to sit on the floor to make an academic feel popular. (Of course, in the past, a significant portion of those who have gotten add-codes have then disappeared until the midterm, after which most of those disappeared for good. But right now I’m popular!)

When it came time to give “the talk” about academic integrity, I was less dispassionate than I have been in years past. It’s no secret that I think plagiarism is lame. But, in the vain hope that it might make a difference — that this might be the term with no instances of plagiarism — I decided to lay it on the line. Here’s a close approximation of what I told my classes:

Plagiarism is evil. I used to think I was a big enough person not to take it personally if someone plagiarized on an assignment for my class. I now know that I was wrong about that. I take it very personally.

For one thing, I’m here doing everything I can to help you learn this stuff that I think is really interesting and important. I know you may not believe yet that it’s interesting and important, but I hope you’ll let me try to persuade you. And, I hope you’ll put an honest effort into learning it. If you try hard and you give it a chance, I can respect that. But if you decide it’s not worth your time or effort to even try, and instead you turn to plagiarism to make it look like you learned something — well, you’re saying that the stuff you’re supposedly here to learn is of no value. I care about that stuff. So I take it personally when you decide, despite all I’m doing here, that it’s of no value.

Even worse, when you hand in an essay that you’ve copied from the internet, you’re telling me you don’t think I’m smart enough to tell the difference between your words and ideas and something you found in 5 minutes with Google. You’re telling me you think I’m stupid. I take that personally.

If you plagiarize in my course, you fail my course, and I will take it personally. Maybe that’s unreasonable, but that’s how I am. I thought I should tell you upfront so that, if you can’t handle having a professor who’s such a hardass, you can explore your alternatives.

To their credit, the students in attendance didn’t run screaming. Some of them even seemed to nod approvingly. (But maybe they just wanted the add-codes?)

There’s a part of me that thinks that people ought to take plagiarism, fabrication, and other forms of dishonesty more personally. When a community gets to the point that dishonesty seems utterly banal — just the cost of doing business — you’re in real trouble. (Exhibit A: American politics.)

When a researcher doctors photographs before submitting them to a journal, not only should that researcher be spanked by the journal editors, but he ought to get phone calls from colleagues expressing their hurt and disappointment that, for the sake of expedience (or whatever lame-ass justification the researcher has), he has brought dishonor to the whole community of researchers. When a scientist is caught making up data, she should not only be fired from her academic job, but should also be treated to an intervention by her collaborators and graduate school lab mates. When Hwang Woo Suk goes to the supermarket, he ought to be scolded by other scientists in the produce aisle.

Scientists should take dishonesty from other scientists personally because it shows a lack of regard for something that matters to the rest of the scientific community. And, being dishonest to other scientists means you think they’re suckers. Cheaters aren’t just hurting themselves; they’re screwing things up for the whole community. They’re making life harder for the scientists who are honest. Honest scientists are entitled to beat the metaphorical crap out of them. Because it is personal.

Comments

  1. #1 Laura
    January 27, 2006

    I love the idea of taking plagiarism personally. Because most of us really do take it personally anyway and it does reflect the real effect it has on the community. I think other students should take it personally when another student plagiarizes. Because it screws it up for them. We make them jump through hoops they might not have had to jump through if others’ didn’t plagiarize.

  2. #2 IndianCowboy
    January 27, 2006

    *applause* well said Dr. Stemwedel. I’ve always wondered why we don’t take things more personally. In my extremely limited experience, we aren’t very good at self-policing, either within our own fields or with regard to closely-related fields.

    Although I have to admit that plagiarism doesn’t quite anger me as much as when a scientist from a different field attempts to make an ‘expert statement’ about your field, and gets excessive press and popular attention doing so.

  3. #3 sennoma
    January 27, 2006

    ought to get phone calls from colleagues expressing their hurt and disappointment

    Oh, amen! Same goes for assholes who “scoop” — take advantage of a conference presentation, visiting lecture, conversation, manuscript review or whatever to slam a rapid publication into press ahead of the person who actually had the idea. Those scumbags should be shunned.

  4. #4 Abel Pharmboy
    January 28, 2006

    What a fabulous post – I’ve always taken it personally, but never thought to tell the class that is a motivation for me ripping them a new one if I catch them. In pharmacy and medicine, we always pontificate about how plagiarism is ‘unprofessional’ and that you can’t hide behind cheating when someone’s life is on the line. Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) that often falls on deaf ears for people who’ve spent their undergrad years begging for every two points on every exam possible. Thinking that ‘I am too stupid to catch them’ is an interesting approach that should convince at least a few more of them I am very serious.

    Re castigating unethical colleagues (mine are more the folks who publish about reagents developed with NIH funds but then refuse to distribute them in violation of both NIH and journal rules), perhaps we need a ‘Go Fug Yourself’ type science blog where we could all submit the hundreds of stories I’ve heard informally from colleagues for years.

    Not to be such a negative vibe merchant, either: Alternatively, a site of people who play by the rules or are good mentors would be equally valuable – Bert Vogelstein and Ken Kinzler at Hopkins are shining examples of folks who willingly share, in a very timely fashion, any reagent you request. As noted by Dr. V in one of the scientific rags, “It’s amazing how much progress can be made when you don’t care who gets the credit.”

    Thanks so much for the stimulating post!

  5. #5 Wayne
    January 29, 2006

    Absolutely, yes. In addition, it’s amazing how many undergrads (and grads) don’t realize there’s an ethical deficiency in plagiarizing. It’s a new thing to them, astonishingly, that *that* sort of cheating is bad. The more instructors who beat it into their heads, the better.

  6. #6 Chris
    January 29, 2006

    You know, I’ve moved in the opposite direction. For 6 years my syllabi included with their explications of plagiarism the line, “Please be aware that I take plagiarism personally as an attempt to decieve me.” I used to read that section aloud to my classes. I thought it might make a difference to my infraction rates if students were more aware that fiddling with academic text could itself constitute a lie to someone they knew well. I hoped to communicate that plagiarism isn’t a cat-and-mouse game, like highway speeding which aims to slip through speed traps, while I emphasized that my penalty, an F for the course, is much more damaging than a speeding ticket.

    One depressing outcome was that it didn’t seem to work. During one recent term under the ‘personally’ clause I punished 12 plagiarizers. So, anecdotally, it didn’t seem to help.

    But now I also feel it was a mistaken approach. I completely agree that we need to emphasize to students the degree to which plagiarism hurts the community–starting with fellow students–and damages more abstract things like the meaningfulness of the university’s degree. But that message becomes clearer when the professor uses that kind of language, rather than the language of personal offense. The ‘personal-offense’ language can leave the impression that plagiarism is primarily between the individual student and the individual instructor, where the imposed penalty and its severity are interpretable as the tools of the instructor’s personal revenge. In contrast, I want the student to feel that I’m impartially carrying out a standard sentence for a serious infraction against the community, against other students, against the university, and against our mutual trust in each other. I want them to feel primarily that it’s not just between me and them–that it’s much bigger than that. Plagiarism is something we in the academic community despise, because it’s corrosive.

    Of course, it is possible for the plagiarizers and the potential-plagiarizers to understand that idea even if I use the ‘personal-offense’ language. But I think that language is distracting and makes it too easy to take away the wrong lesson–something like ‘don’t mess with someone who wields a lot of power over you, because in their anger they will come down hard.’

  7. #7 Super Sally
    February 2, 2006

    Well, I was right with you. But then Chris makes a point.

    It is much like arguing with your children, and ending with the (in)famous: Because I said, and I’m the Dad/Mom [select as appropriate, or disregard this comment if you have never used the phrase].

    Whatever your stipulation about expected behavior is only enforceable while the parent is present. And despite the fact that mothers have eyes in the back of their heads (as well as the front) — I cannot speak for dads– at some point the children have to grow up and operate without constant parental oversight. We can only hope that by that time the wisdom of our stipulation has taken root in the child.

    So are you working with freshly plowed ground with your students, or do you need to break the surface to plant the very idea. Do what you can to know the group, and understand what exposure to the idea that plagiarism is bad for them, bad for their peers, and bad for the advancement of the human endeavor. Then decide how strongly to play the personal card.

  8. #8 MT
    February 3, 2006

    Can’t you muster outrage without making it personal? It doesn’t sound very personal to me, and we tend to act irrationally when we take things personally. Plagiarism is a social ill, and we ought to have our heads on straight for dealing with it.

  9. #9 Ancrene Wiseass
    February 16, 2006

    I agree with you absolutely, Dr. Stemwedel. Plagiarism is unethical and insulting. It’s an offense against the person whose ideas are stolen, it’s an offense against the educational process to which we and the students are ostensibly dedicated, and it’s an offense against both the other students in the course and the teacher who presides over it. It makes perfect sense to be offended both personally and professionally, and I don’t think (pace MT) that means we can’t react rationally.

    Your post reminded me of this excellent one over at Raining Cats and Dogma from back in November: http://dogma.wordherders.net/archives/005196.html.

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