As we creep toward the end of the spring semester, I noticed a story at Inside Higher Ed about a commencement address gone wrong:
Connecticut College is having a painful examination of last year’s student speech.
The student newspaper, The College Voice, revealed that the student speaker’s talk featured considerable material that came from a 2008 commencement address at Duke University by the author Barbara Kingsolver — a talk that turns up on some lists of the best commencement talks ever. While the college has known about the plagiarism for months, the incident was not revealed until this week’s article by the student newspaper. A college spokeswoman confirmed that the article was generally accurate (except for references to the sanctions imposed on the speaker).
The article described the incident as particularly painful to many at the college who had deeply admired the idealistic, gutsy commencement talk and the student selected to give it, Peter St. John, who was described as the kind of person who was used in YouTube videos to promote the campus and whose picture graced admissions publications.
A draft and then final version of his speech were used by a college committee that selected St. John after also viewing other submissions. The student newspaper quoted St. John as saying in an interview about the plagiarism that he and a friend at another college were both nominated to give commencement addresses, and that when his friend was eliminated from his competition, he e-mailed St. John his notes, some of which St. John used.
“I felt an expectation to produce something amazing,” St. John told the student paper. “And that’s not to say that what I did was justified, because it absolutely wasn’t. But everything I said, I meant. There was absolutely no malicious intent, no Googling ’10 best commencement speeches.’ I was not trying to make people believe I had written her words, and would have cited her had I known. I used things suggested by a person I trusted that I felt would help me push forward a sentiment I strongly believed.” (Inside Higher Ed was unable to reach St. John.)
(Bold emphasis added.)
What gets me about this instance of plagiarism is not the spectacularly public setting in which it was perpetrated and the infinitesimally small odds of avoiding detection (as Barbara Kingsolver is kind of well known), but rather the fact that I have heard this excuse before from students I have caught plagiarizing in my courses.
The scenario the student presents is something like this:
I was working with a friend on the assignment. The friend brought some notes to our study session. I guess I copied those notes. But honestly, I have never seen that internet source that, I can see now, is word-for-word identical to what I turned in!
Another variant involves the student’s significant other, visiting from another town, angry that the student is spending so much time on coursework rather than on the visiting significant other. In order that the student can get on with the most pressing duties (i.e., paying attention to the significant other), the significant other insists on “polishing” the student’s essay. That “polishing” ends up introducing uncited word-for-word quotations from internet sources.
First off, let us stipulate that friends and significant others like these suck.
But then, let us notice that the students in these scenarios are not blameless. Indeed, they have absolutely no basis for claiming that they couldn’t have known that they were committing plagiarism.
Instead, they were knowingly using the words or ideas of others without citing the sources of those words or ideas. It does not matter if the source of the words or ideas is a friend or significant other — if they came from someone else, they ought to be cited as such.
That the uncited sources here were themselves helping themselves to the words of (published) others without proper citation was simply the ironic twist that made it possible to crack the crime with a minute’s Googling.