Recently, a friend audaciously asked me to accept money in exchange for writing a class paper for someone she knows, who is working on a graduate degree.
“No! It’s unethical,” I answered.
“But she needs help,” insisted my well-meaning friend. “You know what professors want since you were. Plus, you’re a good writer.”
“She can pay me to teach her, but not to do the work for her. Besides, if she’s a graduate student, she’s already got a grasp of some paper writing rudiments.”
“No,” said my friend. “All along, she’s hired uncredited ‘co-authors.’”
“That’s horrible! That’s even worse than morally problematic-she can never be the social worker she wants to be if she can’t write. Social workers write many reports.”
“She’ll follow a template.”
“Tell her that she’s cheating herself, the system, and her future clients. Tell her I’ll teach her writing for a fee, but I will not write any of her papers for her. There is no amount of money that justifies perpetuating her reliance on other folk to complete her work. Also, it’s very morally wrong for her to do so.”
“Thanks, I’ll just ask someone else to help her.”
Yes, there are “writers” who are neither nice nor competent, yet who seek instant gratification. Some of those “writers,” like the one for whom my friend was pimping, manage by putting their names on results that don’t belong to them, and rationalize that they can attach their names since they paid for “the right” to do so. Other “writers” straightforwardly steal writing that they didn’t produce. The purloiners copy not mere sentences or paragraphs, but entire articles and even entire books!
When I was a professor, it was relatively easy to catch such crooks. Plagiarism-detecting software did not yet exist, but it was impossible for students to forge work if they were required to hand it in piecemeal. I always required my students to hand in their work piecemeal.
My students had to show me all of the stages of their process, from idea generation to outline writing, to rough draft writing, to rewriting, and more. It didn’t matter if they were freshmen, upperclassmen, or graduate students. I wanted them to be able to own their knowledge of the writing process and not to waste their time or mine with bunkum brought forth during an all-nighter. I also wanted to make sure that their rhetorical skills were transferable to a variety of academic and nonacademic situations.
If you memorize a recipe for tomato sauce, you can make that lone dish. Contrariwise, if you learn the properties of tomatoes, you can make countless preparations. The rudiments of writing function similarly; become familiar with them and you can craft countless types of written products.
Further, in being forced to possess actual writing skills, few of my students were tempted to pass off others’ work as their own. In the least, they knew that I wouldn’t accept any final draft, i.e. would allot no credit for a paper, for which I didn’t also possess prewriting, an outline, and a rough draft.
Without a doubt, my students hated my insistence on maintaining standards. They similarly disliked that I spent hours working with each of them, individually, rather than yacking about drivel from the front of their classrooms (it takes oodles more effort to teach a process rather than to simply mark a product, but instructors are obliged to empower, not to self-venerate.)
Usually, a semester or so after finishing one of my courses, my angriest students would drop by my office to exclaim how surprised and grateful they were that my instruction had enabled them to succeed in other circumstances. Long before there were Internet sites for rating teachers, those formerly angry students praised me to department chairs and to other university officials.
Flash forward three and one half decades. These days, despite the fact that it continues to behoove writing instructors to teach the elements of writing, instructors can and should make use of mechanical aids to determine whether or not work submitted to them is original. Without doubt, writing instructors still need to become familiar with each of their student’s relative talent with diction, organization ability, and research knowhow; they still need to be able to recognize each of their student’s work. After all, the convergent media aid their students in pirating papers. As Dr. Michaela Panter writes in “Avoiding Plagiarism,” in American Journal Experts, “plagiarism may be on the rise due to increasing access to research articles via the internet, [and] the ease of use of the copy-and-paste function.”1
Unfortunately, the plagiarism plague has spread beyond the ivory tower to the publishing industry. Whereas publications’ gatekeepers might be less familiar with a given writer’s work than might be a teacher overseeing a writer for an entire semester, we editors and publishers, too, have learned to sniff out suspect documents.
We have access to the same apps for checking breach of copyright as do teachers. Plus, if a writer has other retrievable documents, it’s relatively simple for us to compare the style in a suspicious submission to a body of existent work either with the help of program or in a more old-fashioned way. As Fiction Editor, Beth Hill, explains in “Sampling, Borrowing, Homage, and Plagiarism (Writing Essentials),” in The Editor’s Blog, “each writer has a style. The way they craft sentences and arrange words is peculiar to every writer.”2
When a submitter has no retrievable publications, we gatekeepers can search a writer’s background to help determine whether or not that individual was likely to have created the documents he or she is proffering. While some of the most beloved speculative fiction writers are not English professors or science editors, but are physics professors or software engineers, it is also the case that someone without secondary education, for whom English is their second or third language, is unlikely to be a font of glistening English prose. Gatekeepers, who remain uncertain as to whether or not a piece has been stolen, can ask a writer the same sorts of questions about their documents as professors ask their students.
The costs of being outed as a cheat are great. In higher education, would-be counterfeiters fail assignments and courses, and are sometimes even expelled. In the publishing world, would-be counterfeiters, in the least, receive form rejection letters, or, more grievously, receive an individualized negative response. In exceptional circumstances, such persons get blacklisted. Mark Fox and Jeffrey Beall write in “Advice for Plagiarism Whistleblowers,” in Ethics and Behavior,3 “plagiarism of the works of others is more likely to be taken seriously by editors than is, say, plagiarizing of one’s own work, although editors do appear to be increasingly concerned about duplicate publication issues.” It’s not good news for one’s brand if their name is tarnished.
Despite gatekeepers’ efforts, in electronic and print magazines, and in books, as is true in the university classroom, a small number of forged documents pass. There exist instances like Janet Cooke’s ill-earned Pulitzer Prize 4 and Stephen Ambrose’s repurposing of sections of other folks’ books.5 BH, deceptions of such magnitude are rare.
Basically, it’s neither honorable nor prudent to steal someone else’s writing and then to offer it up as either a class assignment or a publication. Such behavior is delusional in the least, criminal, at worst. Most often, miscreants get caught and penalized. Always, offenders lose out by failing to learn how to improve their writing, or, in the case of my friend’s friend, failing to learn how to write at all.
1. Dr. Michaela Panter. “Avoiding Plagiarism.” American Journal Experts. http://www.aje.com/en/arc/editing-tip-avoiding-plagiarism/. Retrieved 8 Dec. 2017.
2. Beth Hill. “Sampling, Borrowing, Homage, and Plagiarism (Writing Essentials).” The Editor’s Blog. 29 May 2013. http://theeditorsblog.net/2012/11/01/sampling-borrowing-homage-and-plagiarism-writing-essentials/. Retrieved 8 Dec. 2017.
3. Mark Fox and Jeffrey Beall. “Advice for Plagiarism Whistleblowers.” Ethics and Behavior. Taylor & Francis Group. New York: 2014. 24(5), 341–349. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/54694fa6e4b0eaec4530f99d/t/549fa8bde4b029881eff22c8/1419749565831/Advice+for+plagiarism+whistleblowers+2014.pdf. Retrieved 8 Dec. 2017.
4. Mike Sager. “The fabulist who changed journalism [sic].” Columbia Journalism Review. Spring 2016. https://www.cjr.org/the_feature/the_fabulist_who_changed_journalism.php. Retrieved 10 Dec. 2017.
5. Molly Driscoll. “5 famous plagiarism and fraud accusations in the book world [sic].” The Christian Science Monitor. 8 Dec. 2011. https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/2011/1208/5-famous-plagiarism-and-fraud-accusations-in-the-book-world/Alex-Haley Retrieved 10 Dec. 2017.