Adventures in Ethics and Science

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Art
    April 28, 2010

    One of my students insisted–for days, up until the meeting we had with my department head–that he had not plagiarized a research paper that was 100 percent copied and pasted from a psychology professor’s Web site. When the student finally cracked, he said, “I asked my cousin to write the paper for me, because I knew I couldn’t do it. I guess he cheated.”

    The boss and I looked at each other. “Go ahead,” she said. “You say it.”

    “So which F do you want?” I asked. “The one for plagiarism, the one for collusion, or the one for not doing the assignment?”

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    April 28, 2010

    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.

    This is very interesting. It seems that you are asserting that using a speech-writer or ghost-writer without attribution is plaigiarism per se. Does this make President Obama a plaigiarist every time he gives a speech (every one of which is presumably initially written by a staff of writers, not Obama)?

  3. #3 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 28, 2010

    CPP @2, is President Obama being required to write and deliver those speeches for course credit? If so, using an uncredited speechwriter would certainly count as plagiarism.

  4. #4 DrugMonkey
    April 29, 2010

    A commencement speech receives course credit Dr. Stemwedel?

  5. #5 Comrade PhysioProf
    April 29, 2010

    What if Da Prez delivers a commencement speech?

  6. #6 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 29, 2010

    DrugMonkey @4, no.

    But it sounds like Connecticut College chose the student commencement speaker on the basis of written speeches the students submitted.

    While I don’t have the call for such submissions here in from of me, it would not surprise me at all if that call specified that by making such a submission for consideration, students were representing that what they had submitted was their own work (consistent with the standards of scholarship instilled by Connecticut College, yadda yadda).

    And, given the embarrassment the incident seems to have cause for Connecticut College, I reckon all future such calls for potential student commencement speakers to submit drafts of their remarks will make that requirement pretty damn explicit.

  7. #7 DrugMonkey
    April 29, 2010

    But it sounds like Connecticut College chose the student commencement speaker on the basis of written speeches the students submitted.

    and the voters choose a politician in an incremental fashion in part on the basis of speeches delivered by the candidate. At some point was there an expectation that the candidate was delivering her own views? And how DO we reconcile ghost writing where we paste over our concerns by assuming the writer is only polishing up the thoughts and positions that originate with the candidate?

  8. #8 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 29, 2010

    DrugMonkey @7, I’m not saying that the case of a president with speechwriters is unproblematic. I think it is.

    But politics is a hot buttered tub of problematic. And, if I have to become as cynical about your typical college graduate as I am about your typical politician, I think I’m going to need to change careers.

  9. #9 becca
    April 29, 2010

    “At some point was there an expectation that the candidate was delivering her own views? “
    Maybe in theory. In practice, isn’t the expectation that the candidate is giving a carefully constructed, and sometimes coded, answer designed to offend the least number of people that the candidate thinks they can get to vote for them?

    “And, if I have to become as cynical about your typical college graduate as I am about your typical politician, I think I’m going to need to change careers.”
    Wait, you mean your expectation for assignments isn’t that the student is giving a carefully constructed, and sometimes coded, answer designed to impress you as much as possible into giving them the highest possible grade?

    Is it horrible I can’t bring myself to give a flying fig about this kind of plagiarism? The purpose of a commencement speech is to inspire. I see it as significantly more akin to storytelling than peer-reviewed literature.

  10. #10 andre
    April 29, 2010

    Two points:
    (1) Is anyone under the impression that any politician still writes their own speeches unaided?
    (2) Are speechwriters not acknowledged in a sense by their title and payment (I am sure most of these writers are employed by the politicians who use them; same goes for ghostwriters)?
    If a politician (or her or his speechwriters) plagiarized, the politician takes the fully brunt of criticism and responsibility (in theory of course). This student, even if you consider the “friend” a “speechwriter”, must take full responsibility for the content, which he is not.

  11. #11 DuWayne
    May 1, 2010

    In the context of this speech I am not terribly impressed that he used someone else’s work, as that is rather unfair to the folks who were also trying to get that speech. But ultimately I really don’t think it is that much of a problem. However, were I in a position to consider him as a candidate for employment, I would not hire him based on his desire to pass off responsibility. He was the one who gave the address, he was responsible for the content – no matter who wrote it.

    Suck it up and take responsibility for what comes out of your mouth. I am unwilling to employ people who do not take responsibility for what they do.

    I think that a better analogy, if we are really going to make comparisons to politicians and speech writers (SERIOUSLY!??!?!?!) would be the politician blaming the speech writer for the public’s reaction to the speech. If it comes out of your mouth, bloody well own it – don’t blame it on someone else.

  12. #12 nbm
    May 2, 2010

    The distinction between plagiarism and a politician’s use of a speechwriter goes beyond the audience’s understanding & expectation that he or she will do so. The speechwriter has created the work for exactly this purpose. So no violation of intellectual property rights is involved.

    I suppose those of us who would like to judge our politicians on their writing skills must settle for judging them on their taste.

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