To clarify from the start, this post is not in response to any particular recent events. However, I have written in the past about how plagiarism can affect those who have been plagiarized, how it can affect our community at large, and why it shouldn’t appeal to the plagiarist. I realized I was missing a discussion of how plagiarism can affect those who read the plagiarized content.
Plagiarism in Academia
In the real world, I occasionally teach literature and writing classes to undergrads, and I have discovered my fair share of plagiarized essays. (I try not to think about the ones I might not have caught.) And although I realize the plagiarism is not really about me–it’s about the student cheating him or herself of a proper education, or it’s about the student cheating other students in the classroom–it often does feel very personal.
It takes me an average of 40 minutes to grade a typical essay I assign. Teaching experts talk about life/work balance and trying to spend 20 minutes maximum per essay, but anyone who has graded know that 20 minutes is often an elusive dream. Well-written essays are often faster to grade, but ones that are a little confusing or need a few more revisions before final submission take longer. The only way for me to cut down on grading time is to cut down on providing useful feedback–and that’s one thing I’m not willing to do. It’s quick and easy to scribble a note that says “Page 2 is a bit confusing. You should clarify your ideas before the final draft.” It takes much longer to read and reread page 2, try to figure out where the author is trying to go, and offer concrete solutions for him or her to get there.
So when I realize I have spent 40 minutes commenting on an essay or a draft that has been plagiarized, it angers me. I have wasted 40 minutes of my life reading an essay my student did not write, may not have even read him or herself, and will not be able to apply my feedback to. And I will have to spend even more time documenting the plagiarism, finding the original sources so I can report it to the proper school boards, and double-checking all the student’s past submitted essays for plagiarism I may have missed. Each of these cases takes hours. I know the student never meant the action personally; it has nothing to do with me. But still. They showed the y have no respect for my class. No respect for my time. They lied to me, and they clearly think I’m foolish enough to fall for it.
It’s even more upsetting fielding students’ various reactions. I hear stories of students who have been repentant, and I have a lot of respect for that. Unfortunately, this has not yet been my experience. Some students go down with the ship, declaring nothing was done wrong. Some students lash out. Some try to carry on in the class as if nothing happened at all. Some go to the honor board and try to convince the committee that somehow the whole thing was my fault because I never told them what plagiarism was (I always do). None of these reactions make it any easier for me to deal with the case.
So, yes, dealing with plagiarism is a hassle. It can be emotionally draining, if the plagiarist becomes confrontational. Yet most of all, it feels like a betrayal. To read someone’s work in good faith, to have respect for them as a student and as a writer, to truly want to see them grow and then realize you were being given lies can be devastating. It’s not personal, but it certainly feels as if it is.
Plagiarism in the Blogosphere
Although plagiarism in the blogosphere has some differences from plagiarism in academia, I think my story above illustrates the emotional roller coaster that a reader can experience after discovering they have been reading plagiarized work. Even when the plagiarism has nothing to do with the reader personally–they weren’t stolen from, they weren’t asked to do anything particular with the work, etc.–discovering the plagiarism can feel like a betrayal. I think this, perhaps even more than the lack of a sincere apology, can be what makes it difficult for bloggers who have plagiarized to rebuild their audiences.
Publishing plagiarized work is simply a waste of readers’ time. They thought they were reading original work from Blogger A, when really they were reading Blogger B’s work, or something that was cobbled together haphazardly from multiple sources. But they if wanted to be reading Blogger B’s writing, they wouldn’t be reading Blogger A’s blog. If they wanted to read excerpts from multiple blogs, they would be reading those blogs instead. Readers are being promised one “product” and being given something else. When they discover the plagiarism, many will be upset that Blogger A had no respect for their time.
They may also be upset that Blogger A lied to them, and believed the his or her followers were silly enough they would never notice the plagiarism. There’s nothing worse than imagining a plagiarist sitting at home and laughing at how gullible everyone is because they believe the blogger is publishing original content. (I’m sure plagiarists don’t actually laugh about this. In fact, many of them may be seriously stressed out by the threat of discovery, but the readers don’t know this. They will assume the plagiarist was happy to lie to them.). No one enjoys being lied to, and no one likes to think they were successfully deceived for a time. Rebuilding an audience after treating them like fools can be difficult.
Presenting your readers with plagiarized work is a breach of trust. When people are following your writing career (whether it’s academic work, professional writing, or a blog you run as a hobby), they feel an investment in you and in your writing. Discovering that their interest and good faith was taken advantage of can be devastating for readers; it can make them feel that you have no respect for them and their time. I know many people plagiarize out of a desire to present good work to the world, to give their readers something they think is more worthwhile or more interesting or more well-written than what they would produce on their own. However, the truth is that readers want to read original work. No one would be reading your writing if they weren’t interested in what you personally had to say.
Have you ever discovered you were reading plagiarized work? How did you feel?