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Plagiarism and Public Policy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Deitchman
January 29, 2024

Replete: it’s a vocabulary word from 7th grade that led a teacher in 9th grade to wrongly accuse me of plagiarizing my essay on Catcher in the Rye, and as such, a word I will always remember. As a writer the allegation that I would commit this dishonest act and was incapable of using erudite language without illicit assistance still stings, even more than a quarter century after my exoneration. Plagiarism is a significant breach of academic and professional standards, but with the recent charges against former Harvard President Claudine Gay among others, there’s an ongoing broader discussion of the originality of ideas to consider.

Plagiarism may have been the proximate cause of Dr. Gay’s decision to resign from the Harvard presidency, but her poor answer at a Congressional hearing about antisemitism set the circumstances into motion. Many of the primary critics pushing for the end of her administration cared more about ideology than alleged academic dishonesty. Dr. Gay is not the first prominent figure to see plagiarism derail a career. President Joe Biden ended his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination for 1988 after the media caught him lifting unattributed stump speech passages from British Labour politician Neil Kinnock. This incident has no bearing on President Biden’s poor public approval rating 36 years later, but there are lingering effects to arcane dishonesty. Plagiarism does not, in and of itself, manifest as a salient political and policy problem beyond elite circles, but its presence as an ancillary issue can expose other flaws and disagreements.

For many people plagiarism is most relevant in the scholastic context. Teachers, instructors and professors need to know that the work is that of the student to fairly and properly assess performance and, as such, rules against plagiarism are fundamental to academic codes. By all accounts, plagiarism is rampant and widely available advances in artificial intelligence tools, such as ChatGPT, have made identifying this scourge even more difficult. 

In my teaching career I tried my best to use the tools and practices to determine the validity of the papers the students submitted.  After my experience in high school and the empathy I felt for a distraught graduating college senior, who almost lost his graduate school acceptance offer after I submitted to the dean’s office passages he had clearly lifted in his final paper (where fortunately we were able to assign him a D grade for the course rather than failing him), I sought airtight evidence to pursue any plagiarism suspicion. As such, there are, frankly, students who probably got away with it.  All I can hope is that they have learned beyond their transgressions of youth and that their illegitimately high grades did not otherwise harm hardworking and honest students or future employers. 

Plagiarism in published work is more deleterious than in papers merely submitted for a grade.  Substantiated allegations can destroy individual reputations and the credibility of institutions. There are pecuniary implications when someone sells stolen words as his or her own work. There are legal actions to respond to this form of fraud, but there are also grey areas where enforcement is lacking. There may be general agreement that plagiarism is wrong, but there is ambiguity on how to punish violators and protect originality.

We live in a time where there is value to content curation. This is certainly true in traditional and social media, as compiling the most interesting, accurate and useful information from the Internet has significant service, particularly with proper attribution. This is also part of the internal work of scholars and practitioners in public policy and public administration, as we process and share the most relevant material to inform decision-making. The copy-paste function is of fundamental importance in the modern analyst and managerial craft, but a lack of originality is prevalent in our society. In popular culture, for example, sequels, reboots, long established series and retellings of past events reign supreme in movies, television and streaming. Although much of this content is entertaining and enjoyable, it reveals a culture that is not always moving forward.        

The problem of plagiarism is emblematic of some of the violations of the public trust and lack of creativity that has driven malaise in modern society. If there is a perception that cheating, or at least finding shortcuts, gets rewarded and that there are minimal rewards for originality, then it should come as no surprise that plagiarism is all too common. While there are legislative options for policymakers to consider, change here is likely upstream of public policy. The most of us who take pride in our words need to continue to lead by example and encourage our colleagues and the next generation to foster writing that is replete (that 7th grade vocabulary word that I will never forget) with originality.

Author: Benjamin Deitchman is a public policy practitioner in Atlanta, Georgia.  2024 is his 10th year of writing for the PATIMES and he is the author of the book Climate and Clean Energy Policy: State Institutions and Economic Implications.  Dr. Deitchman’s email address is deitchmanb at gmail dot com and he is on what he still calls Twitter, for now, @Deitchman.

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