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.