Related: Education, Honor Code, Social Issues

Plagiarism Ruination


Plagiarism has ruined yet one more career. Such an old story, yet it must be retold again and again.

This time, a top White House aide to President Bush is the culprit. Special Presidential Assistant Tom Goeglein admitted he used somebody else’s written material for a column he wrote in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. Goeglein has resigned. Subsequent investigations are revealing more than one instance of plagiarism. Indeed, the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel now reports that 20 of 38 columns that Goeglein wrote contained plagiarized material.

I have written many times about the damage that plagiarism can do to a person’s career, reputation, lifelihood, life. In March 2006 we saw the case of a young Washington Post writer who was fired because of plagiarism. Last year I wrote a series of blogs on “Wiki-Ethics” in response to a Washington Post opinion piece that seemed to suggest that plagiarism is not such a bad thing. The writer of that piece disagreed with my hardline stance on this topic. We had a lively exchange with other readers weighing in with comments.

At Trinity, our Honor Code is clear: lying, cheating and stealing are strictly forbidden, and plagiarism is a form of all three — the writer who uses someone else’s written material without proper citations is lying, presenting the material as her own; she’s cheating, because she is using someone else’s work to represent her own academic accomplishments; and he’s stealing, because taking something that doesn’t belong to you without permission is theft.

Sometimes, I hear suggestions that we should be less severe about plagiarism; perhaps students don’t really understand the concept, perhaps they’ve not received good training in how to write without plagiarizing, perhaps in the past they’ve even received good grades for submitting plagiarized material. I’m all in favor of compassionate instruction on the topic of plagiarism; but we cannot be soft in accepting or overlooking or excusing blatant dishonesty in academic work. The integrity of Trinity’s academic grading system is at stake every single time a cheater gets away with a passing grade for work that is not her own.

Sometimes I hear the suggestion that plagiarism is a consequence of poor lower education, or poverty, or a result of cultural or language differences among students. But the notorious public cases of plagiarism — the White House aide, the Washington Post reporter, other reporters, famous historians, other writers of note — illustrate that even the most well-educated, economically secure, native English speakers can commit plagiarism in spectacular ways. We cannot accept environmental excuses for dishonest conduct.

Let’s be real: plagiarism is cheating, and cheating is unacceptable at any level. Period. We can work harder at instructing our new students; we can use compassionate tough love with first offenders in the early collegiate grades. But we also know from long experience that adults who plagiarize are often repeat offenders; almost every notorious public case proves to be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how many times the individual stole material from elsewhere. When students who are more advanced in their education — upper division undergraduates, seniors, graduate students — plagiarize, their reputation for honesty in all academic submissions comes into question. We expect students at that level to manifest the best intellectual habits, of which honesty in all matters is fundamental. For this reason, seniors and graduate students who commit plagiarism or who otherwise violate Trinity’s Academic Honesty Policy will incur dismissal; they forfeit their degrees all because they cheated on papers or exams.

With another season for final papers and exams coming up soon, I urge any student who feels confused about plagiarism or other aspects of the Academic Honesty Policy to talk to your advisors, faculty members or Academic Services Staff (especially the Writing Center). We have many sources of help here at Trinity. Take full advantage of our assistance to be sure that you will be able to enjoy a truly happy graduation day!

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