Frank: “They threw me out for plagiarizing.”

Ernest: “You were stealing songs?”

Frank: “No, I was taking notes.”

—from a Frank and Ernest cartoon
(Frank has been expelled from music school)


A graduate student asked if he could take a reading course; sitting at my feet, I thought, talking with the rabbi.  He was in his early 30’s, a little older than I was, and he had taught in a private school for boys for ten years.  It was time for him to take a year or so off and gather his wits about him and learn a little of what a decade of teaching had taught him that he did not know.  We agreed that he would read 15 books—one each week for the semester—and write short reviews that would be the basis of our once-a-week discussions.  It wasn’t long before I looked forward to that conversation more than anything I was teaching that semester: His essays were so good, his disposition so even, his humor so engaging.

We shook hands one Thursday after a particularly good discussion; I was walking back to my desk and spotted a page on the floor.  I picked it up and glanced at it rather casually, and then a two-by-four hit me upside the head.  It was a copy of a short review (from the Times Literary Supplement) of the book we had just been talking about, and it was identical in every word and punctuation mark to the review he had presented to me as his own work.  Rather than run after him and strangle him to death and deprive my family of a husband and father, I sat down and eventually decided that I must first talk with my wise wife.

She said two things to me that changed my life as a teacher.  “You must confront him,” she said, “and find out if you can why he did this.”  And what turned out to be even more important, she said, “Who was injured by what he did?  Was it you, or the university, or—?”  The answer to the latter question is, of course, if there is a class of students, one’s classmates.  But in this case, no classmates, no foul.  Right?

He told me the next day (trembling) that he was so afraid of what he perceived were my high standards (I was a bear in those days) that he gave in, that the temptation was too great for him, that he could cheat and cover it over with his proven personality.  I remember shaking with moral indignation and self-righteousness, but staying calm and telling him that he would be quietly expelled from the graduate school (a teacher of boys who cheats!) but not publicly stripped of his coat buttons on the front lawn.  This was as clear a case of plagiarism, of self-conscious cheating, as I have ever encountered in a very long life in this profession.  And I am not sure to this day that I did the right thing.

I’ve known teachers who have written paragraphs, even pages in their syllabuses warning students about the sins they might commit or omit; I’ve known others who have been willing to spend hours, days, weeks in the library (or now, online) chasing down suspected plagiarists; and others who have even engaged sentinels in their classes to smell out or root out and report on their sinning classmates.

There are many better ways to spend your time.

First, read Judge Richard Posner’s fine book, The Little Book of Plagiarism.  You will find that plagiarism is historically, morally, and legally ambiguous and relative.  He says, “‘plagiarism’ turns out to be difficult to define.”  Thomas Jefferson probably took too many words from Locke, and from his colleague John Dickinson, when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, which itself was only one in a series of such declarations, and yet we immortalize his words.  (This is my example, not Judge Posner’s.)  But Judge Posner also says that the “plagiarist does not play fair.”  “Concealment is at the heart of plagiarism.”  It surely is, but it also has an “extraordinary historical and cultural variability.”  Shakespeare copied, for example.  Why, asks Judge Posner, would any writer of works intended to entertain want to be “original”?

(A note here: The most erudite, challenging, and hilarious essay I have ever seen on literary plagiarism is the late John Greenway’s “The Honest Man’s Guide to Plagiarism” in the December 21, 1979, issue of National Review.)

“And caution,” Posner says, “must be the watchword when the concept of plagiarism is extended from literal copying to the copying of ideas.”  The American Historical Association, among other august chattering bodies, has declared the copying of an idea to be cheating.  Is an idea original?  Who has had an idea that nobody else ever had?  A colleague of mine once wrote in a grant application, “In twenty-five centuries of Platonic scholarship, no one has seen what I have seen.”  Then, before his book was written, another appeared that completely preempted it.

One of the many things that being a professional historian for 50 years has taught me is that there are no new ideas.  The book of Genesis pretty much lays them all out.  Test any event—the Scopes Trial of 1925, for example—and you will find that every interpretation of it was presented at the time.  We rediscover ideas, and therefore have to place every discussion of cheating about them in that perspective.

Why would students want to plagiarize?  The reasons are obvious and simple.  They don’t have enough time to finish the assignment.  They don’t understand it.  They want a good grade, since grades are the way they are judged for their moral and intellectual worth.  They are playing games with the professors who have already said that they will hunt them down.  They just want to get away with something that authority condemns.  They are lazy.  They are stupid.  They are made in the image of God and have rebelled against Him.  They are human beings with one nature.

Judge Posner thinks that the left is “soft on plagiarism.”  He thinks this because leftists tend to be committed both to relativism and to a strange position that gives them authority over truth that is at once relative and absolute insofar as they wish to define it.  When words became property, sometime after the Enlightenment, using them became proprietary.  So truth is relative, but using the words that other people use to describe it is absolute.  And then it is hard to define what is absolute about it.  It is a conviction of the left that there is no such thing as human nature (this is perhaps the defining characteristic of the left), and so in a curious way the prevailing academic culture must set itself an “objective” standard concerning plagiarism that has no basis in either tradition or nature.  The left tried to define it, but the right now tries to enforce it.  Conservatives so often are the conservators of the last generation’s progressive ideas.

Fr. Walter Ong, S.J., one of the great and underrecognized geniuses of the 20th century, once said that “texts are inherently contumacious.”  Although he probably meant that texts are “rebellious,” difficult to control, he may also have meant that they swell and are promiscuous.  (I knew Father Ong, and he was given to irony.)  They seduce all of us at one time or another.

Something I have heard from scores of colleagues over the years is, “Choose the second-best textbook for your courses.  Save the best one for your lectures.”  Most of the teachers I have known—several hundred at least—have used this bit of wisdom to get past a heavy teaching load, struggling under poor pay and often demeaning working conditions.  In other words, they cheat, and they are often the ones who are “soft on plagiarism” or, interestingly, some of the toughest on students they suspect of cheating.  Every time a teacher enters a classroom and gives out information or wisdom he has gained from a source he does not acknowledge, he is a plagiarist.  Texts are, indeed, contumacious.

It is easy to be cynical about this form of cheating.  Tom Lehrer is mostly forgotten by this generation.  On this subject, he sang,



Let no one else’s work evade your eyes,

Remember why the Good Lord made your eyes,

So don’t shade your eyes,

But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize . . .

Only be sure always to call it, please, “research”!


He sang it in a Russian accent.  The song was “Loba­chevsky.”

Dorothy Parker, whose vicious wit spared almost nobody, said that “The only ism Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.”  I attended the world premier of The Paper Chase in 1973 and sat next to its director, James Bridges.  The film is a gem, the best movie about teaching I have ever seen.  I asked Mr. Bridges how he came to make this particular film, and he said that he was a writer for the Alfred Hitchcock television show in the 60’s, and that they worked around the clock trying to get scripts right week after week, and one day he was sued for plagiarism.  He had no idea he had stolen somebody’s material, but he hired an attorney to check it out.  The lawyer settled the case for $1,500 and then presented Mr. Bridges a bill for $26,000.  “I decided,” said Mr. Bridges, “to make a movie about lawyers.”

Lawyers and academic associations have a lot to do with plagiarism, and we should not forget that.  Judge Posner points out that “Unconscious plagiarism is a more plausible defense to a charge of copying someone’s idea or tune, as distinct from his words, without attribution.”  But legalities aside, the issue comes down to culpability.  Cheating.

The American Historical Association denies this (as do most other academic associations).  It insists that intent has nothing to do with it.  What’s in the heart is hard to prove, so allowing plagiarists the cop-out with a “whoops” factor gains nothing for academic integrity.  The AHA has famously hounded several of its well-known members (and several historian nonmembers)—the biographer Stephen Oates, to name one—but has found that it must almost always shift definitions to get what amounts to a credible case.  It has always seemed to me that, to be sensible about any serious charge, we must try to look into the sinner’s heart, as hard as that may be.

The most famous case of cheating is that of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Chronicles covered this from the beginning and showed courage that few magazines of record have ever demonstrated.  Dr. King cheated all his academic life, in print and in speeches, in and out of college and graduate school.  He had to know what he was doing, and whatever excuses his apologists try to present, he was, simply put, a cheater.  And he was also a man of great courage and, in a way that is difficult to define, a moral man.  I think that his case is a good one for teachers to consider.

Theodore Pappas, who blew the whistle on Dr. King, reflected later about the experience in Plagiarism and the Culture War: “No one suffers the pangs and arrows of outrageous fortune like the exposer of a famous plagiarizer, for it is he, not the sinner and certainly not the sin, who becomes the center of debate . . . ”  It was true that Mr. Pappas faced things that Dr. King should have faced.  But I want to go back into the plausible circumstances of Dr. King’s life and ask: If he was indeed a moral man in some large sense, is there something we can imagine about his early years that might have helped him to cheat less, or not at all?

I now speak to teachers, and not to print or internet editors.  The problems of plagiarism that come up in public and legal places are the subjects of technical things that have little to do with how teachers do their jobs.  Agonizing over the graduate student I sent into outer darkness, a few years later it came to me that I had put him to the test.  If there is a true human nature—and there is—then we should admit to it and put it to the test as infrequently as possible.  Please, lead me not into temptation!  As right as Mr. Pappas is about the scorn heaped upon exposers, it is also true that to accuse a student or a colleague of plagiarism—even to accuse, not necessarily even to prove—is to put a mark of Cain on him.

Judge Posner says, “Plagiarism is considered by most writers, teachers, journalists, scholars, and even members of the general public to be the capital intellectual crime.”  It isn’t.  Plagiarism is relative.  Cheating is also relative, but not in the hearts of teachers or their students.

There are many sensible things teachers can do to lessen the temptation for students.  Never repeat an assignment.  Students and teachers are always in competition on this point.  Every assignment can essentially be the same, but if the teacher has any imagination whatsoever the students will not recognize the subtle differences.  Never repeat a paper topic, and never assign a paper on “whatever you want to write.”  Never repeat a quiz or essay question.  Make assignments clear and precise.  It will create more work for you.  You will have less time to write, less time to think, less time to play with your children.  But if you follow these simple rules, students will have to go to such extraordinary means to cheat that you will not need to worry about it.  They are doomed anyway.  And you will be a better teacher.

The other side of this is that the teachers who present borrowed material as their own are also doomed.  Plagiarism goes both ways.  (“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone . . . ”)  I’ve seen so much hypocrisy, so much anguish, so much confusion about this particular academic sin that it might be best just to sit down and start over.  Isn’t it curious, for example, that the students at my former institution (which is, on the whole, a very sensible one, with much integrity) sign an honor code, but faculty do not?

It is our nature, both teacher and student, to want to excel, to impress our intended audience, and sometimes this causes us to become a little reckless—to take that chance.  But plagiarism attacks our souls.  How we react is what counts.  The strong and secure will resist it, the weak and insecure will succumb to it.  Relying on abstractions, legal or moral, to describe cheating will never solve the problem.  This is a plea for common sense.