Plagiarism, a Statement by the Faculty of Haverford College

To say that Haverford College frowns on plagiarism is like saying that our community opposes kidnapping, or burglary.  Plagiarism is theft, theft of something far more valuable as a rule than the usual booty of the sneak thief.  Yet a person who has never entertained the idea of shoplifting or picking a pocket, much less of robbing a bank may, when under pressure of a deadline or in despair over what seems hopeless ignorance, deliberately steal the product of someone else’s work in the form of the written word.

Plagiarism in its most blatant and obvious form is presenting as one’s own a major piece of work written by someone else.  The action may consist of copying an article from an encyclopedia, a journal or some other source, and handing it in as original work; or purchasing a paper from another and submitting it as one’s own; or translating a paper from a foreign language and presenting the translation as an original piece.  Plagiarism of this sort is inexcusable, and a student found guilty of it will normally be separated from the College. Plagiarism comes in more subtle forms as well, however, and these variations often result from ignorance, bad habits (e.g. sloppy notetaking while preparing to write a paper, poor time management that leads to rushed composition of papers), or both.  In the matter of ignorance: while everyone recognizes the existence in scholarly realms of so-called “common knowledge,” the notion of knowledge held in common may well appear opaque to the beginning scholar, for whom nothing about a newly-discovered subject is familiar.  To this problem there is no easy solution.  The inexperienced student must learn, through reading and consultation, to make informed distinctions. When in doubt, though, find a source and cite it properly rather than assume something must be common knowledge.

The difficulty in making these distinctions arises not only from ignorance of the subject at hand, but from certain assumptions shared by us all about the meaning of a Haverford education.  We believe in and wish to encourage the free exchange of ideas in a community of scholars, for we view learning and scholarship as a common possession of the community, not as the private property of cognitive capitalists.  But this freedom, like all freedom, rests upon responsibility, and a free exchange will flourish most properly in an atmosphere where there is responsible attribution and acknowledgment.  We are responsible to everyone who shares in the scholarly enterprise, both here at Haverford but throughout the scholarly world, not simply to avoid outright dishonesty, but to learn the habits and conventions that ensure ethical academic behavior.  We must, in other words, learn the rules as well as the subject.

Consider a hypothetical case in which a student is writing a paper on the subject of narrative in prose fiction.  Although the professor has not called for a research paper, it is assumed that some secondary material will be consulted.  Statements like the following are typical of the sort that might appear in such an essay, and they demand of the writer typical decisions about documentation. 1.) D.A. Miller, in his Narrative and Its Discontents, talks about the concept of “the narratable.” 2.) The way a story gets itself told shapes the reader’s response to it. 3.) There is a difference between the historical person who published the novel and the implied author whose norms animate the narrative. Given the mention of author and title and the use of direct quotation in the first statement, no one is likely to omit the remaining elements of full documentation, that is, the facts of publication.  What to do about the other two statements, however, may be less clear.  Lacking experience, the student may at first have to depend upon direct instruction to learn that a complete citation is just as appropriate for number 3 since, although no names or quoted words appear, the wording is that developed by a certain critic in a certain work: Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction.  Number 2, on the other hand, has been said in so many ways by so many persons over so much time that it may be considered a part of the knowledge held in common by the world of literary criticism if not by the world at large.  Similar examples could be cited from other disciplines.

What must be remembered in all cases is that, when it comes to incorporating statements like these into a piece of work to be represented as the student’s own, it is always his or her responsibility to discover which category applies. While ignorance is understandable, then, it may nevertheless lead to forms of plagiarism, and is therefore a serious matter.  Equally serious as a source of plagiarism is carelessness in the business of taking notes.  Such carelessness comes in several forms: a passage is recorded exactly with correct documentation but without quotation marks; a passage is summarized, or paraphrased, not quoted, but without attribution; it is paraphrased and correctly documented, but without the use of quotation marks around the key words taken directly from the original; it is quoted in full with full attribution, but without absolute accuracy.  When and if the student discovers these omissions, it is often too late to repair them before the assignment is due.  What results may be, and often is, innocent of larcenous intent, but it is a form of larceny all the same, and constitutes therefore a grave offense.

In an excellent discussion of this topic, Margaret Maurer makes the point that many instances of plagiarism occur because of a lack of intellectual seriousness.  The plagiarist simply does not know enough, or has not cared enough, about the subject at hand either to judge the value and originality of a piece of material or, with its help, to formulate an idea of his or her own.  Nevertheless an assignment is due.  The paper that is then hastily and desperately thrown together may be merely a vacuous assemblage of words and phrases, the sort of writing derided by George Orwell in his “Politics and the English Language.”   But since nearly everyone has been told, by Orwell among others, that an essay must include examples and must be concrete and substantial, the frantic writer, having passed the hour for intellection, may turn instead to thievery.  It is this thievery, whether in its obvious or subtle forms, that writers must guard against. The members of the Haverford Faculty recognize that they share in the community’s responsibility to maintain academic honesty.  They recognize the difficulty in drawing the line between common knowledge and individual contributions.  They know that the conventions of documentation are often complicated.  For these reasons, they stand ready to discuss such questions and to help students avoid becoming plagiarists in spite of themselves.  All students, when in doubt, should engage their professors about proper documentation of material, and should in any case err on the side of caution.

Last modified: September 22, 2011