For those of us in the unpleasant position of policing student essays for plagiarism, there's a familiar odor wafting off of the unfolding scandal involving Scott McGinnis, a former congressman and current candidate for governor in Colorado ("McInnis’ water writings mirror works published years ago by Justice Hobbs", Denver Post 7/12/2010):
Portions of essays on water submitted for publication by gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis are identical or nearly identical to work published years earlier by now-State Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs. […]
In a memo accompanying the work when it was turned in to the Hasan Foundation for publication, McInnis wrote that it was all original work and in its final form.
McInnis refused to comment for this story. His campaign’s spokesman, Sean Duffy, acknowledged the similarities between the work of Hobbs and McInnis, and blamed a researcher who worked with McInnis on the articles.
Rolly Fischer, an engineer who worked at the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Duffy said, was the one who handled the portions that used Hobbs’ work without attribution.
“It should’ve been attributed properly and it was not,” Duffy said. “(McInnis) relied on the research and expertise” of Fischer.
Fischer did not immediately return a message for comment. His name appears nowhere on the work McInnis submitted as his own for publication by the Hasan Foundation.
The facts of this case are not clear yet — but in any event, my point is not to excoriate Mr. McInnis. What interests me here is yet another example of the two incompatible ethical yardsticks that our culture applies to questions of authorship.
For students and their teachers, the key question about a text is who wrote it. When students submit essays (or problem-set answers, or anything else) as their own work, the crucial thing is that the work is really and truly their own. If they hired someone else to write it for them, that's even worse than if they copied it from some previously-written document.
For politicians, business leaders, and other celebrities, the key question about a text is who owns it. When they submit as their own work a book, a speech, a column, or whatever, the only requirement is that they haven't violated someone else's property rights by illegitimate copying. Hiring someone to write things for them is not only OK, it's the normal practice.
So in the case of Scott McInnis, the question is not whether he hired Rolly Fisher to write some or all of his essays for him. Everyone apparently agrees that McInnis hired Fisher to write for him, and everyone accepts that this is perfectly in order. The scandal turns on the question of whether Fisher plagiarized some of his work-for-hire from previous publications by Gregory Hobbs.
As I observed a few years ago ("Unwritten rules and uncreated consciences", 5/4/2006), this striking distinction between plagiarism-by-students and plagiarism-by-grown-ups looks superficially like hypocrisy. But whatever its moral standing, the situation is certainly very confusing to students. In my opinion, it would be helpful if we had a special term for academic plagiarism, to emphasize the point that it has nothing whatever to do with the mis-step that Scott McInnis may or may not be in trouble for.
I've participated in several University-wide attempts of different kinds to inform incoming students about what plagiarism is and why they should avoid it. None of these forums have explained why one of the things that we (correctly) punish students for, namely hiring other people to do their work for them, is normal in the world of business and politics — and common among academic administrators as well.
[One other curious aspect of our culture's norms in this area: social reaction seems to be based on a notion of copyright that never expires. Thus if Scott McInnis's ghostwriter had plagiarized some essays that were published in 1920, and thus are free of intellectual-property restrictions in the U.S., I suspect that the public would still view McInnis as having transgressed.
And on reflection, I guess that it's a bit more complicated. If X publishes a work of political philosophy, and politician Y then pays X for the right to re-issue the same text over Y's name instead, this would be viewed as culpable or at least weird. In contrast, if Y simply pays X to ghostwrite the same text, to be published as Y's work, this would be normal. So there is at least a shallow pretense of originality here, and perhaps therefore an odor of hypocrisy after all.]
[More on the McInnis story here — though as I said earlier, this is only a representative example.]