Related: Education, Honor Code

Wiki-Ethics II — Debate!!


I received a reply to my last blog on “Wiki-Ethics” from Jason Johnson, the author of the “Cut and Paste is a Skill, Too” Washington Post article to which I objected strongly. I still disagree with him, but his explanation is important to illuminate this discussion:

Here’s Mr. Johnson’s message (quoted with his permission):

“I do not advocate violating school policies, including plagiarism. The plagiarism I perform at work is routine. I take weekly reports from other employees and compile them into monthly reports. These reports bear only my name and I do not reference or cite the works of others. I also compose content for public web sites by pulling from other (company owned) published sources; plagiarism pure and simple. The world of business is primarily ruled by copyright which is far more nuanced than plagiarism. I am sure (with your law background) that you know this, but many education professionals have sworn to me there are laws against plagiarism, when really they are just the policy of the institution with no more heft than the dress code. I have seen colleagues run afoul of copyright in business because they applied the rules of citation from academia, and vice versa.

“Looking at it from the outside now, the concept of plagiarism seems to exist as a means to help assure the content is original so that teachers can properly assess a student’s absorption of the content. I think there are more efficient ways to test content absorption and teach writing skills and they do not have to be packaged together. Teachers are spending an inordinate amount of time (and schools’ money) on combating plagiarism. Do we really want to continue the escalation, or should educators be seeking other paths?

“I believe students should write early and often, but a significant portion of that will need to be in a monitored environment if you want to ensure original writing skills are developed. I believe there is a marketable skill in taking the works of others and creating a well developed whole. I do it on a weekly basis and I wish that skill had been developed in an academic environment rather then on-the-job. And finally, I believe that these are two different skill sets that schools need different methodologies to assess and develop.

“We may agree to disagree, but I hope this clarifies the intent of the article.”

I replied to his message:

“…while we may agree to disagree, I appreciate your explanation. We do take plagiarism very seriously here at Trinity, and we cannot relent in our effort to ensure that every student understands that the work she presents must have the highest integrity. We also believe deeply in the power of writing, and the best writing cannot be done in class, it takes time, quiet and deep thought to produce a good piece of writing. If students don’t learn good academic habits of writing, proper citation and how to express their own thoughts correctly (not cutting and pasting) in high school, we are left with tremendous remedial work to accomplish in college.

“I felt that your article conveyed a message of disdain for the importance of writing, and the even more serious importance of teaching about integrity in producing a work product that is truly the student’s own. I responded strongly because your article could lead many students to believe that plagiarism rules are debatable, that it might be ok to slack off on writing assignments. Your statement below, that the “concept of plagiarism seems to exist as a means to help assure the content is original so that teachers can properly assess a student’s absorption of the content” misses the mark. Plagiarism is cheating. Our focus on rooting out plagiarism is driven by an overwhelming concern for integrity and academic honesty. Presenting someone else’s work as your own is dishonest —- unless it’s in the kind of situation you describe as pertaining to your workplace, where the compilation is approved and known. That’s not plagiarism.”

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: