When students find out that an instructor has marked them down or even failed them for plagiarism, many become defensive and argue that what they did isn’t wrong.
Why, they ask, should they be punished for repeating ideas or occasional phrases that other people wrote? What is the difference between quoting someone and using their ideas in a paper? Are there really original ideas, or is everything copied from earlier sources? These sorts of excuses are a bit self-serving, but to understand why plagiarism is an academic offence, it helps to look at the history of plagiarism.
Using other people’s words and ideas wasn’t always considered wrong. In ancient times, it was expected that authors would rely on earlier authorities, and that often meant copying their exact words, usually with only the barest of hints that these were not the author’s own words. An entire genre of poetry emerged in which writers would take Classical poems and chop them up and remix the phrases into poems on new subjects. Sometimes, whole books were barely disguised plagiarisms of earlier authors. The medieval writer Isidore of Seville, for example, often recycled and remixed material from ancient authors without attribution. In one interesting case, a few pages of Arabic material on the history of ancient Egypt was repeated word-for-word across dozens of books from 1000 CE all the way to the 1600s!
But in the modern era, scholars came to think of authorship as an individual endeavor, and not simply the temporary embodiment of the Platonic ideal of literature that existed in some philosophical plane. In other words, the author wasn’t just writing universal truth but writing his or her own personal viewpoints, and the author needed to be credited for originating those ideas. Once the idea of author as individual creator took hold, so did the idea of plagiarism. Copying was no longer seen as improving upon the original but rather as stealing from the real owners of the texts. When books had been paid for by wealthy patrons, this kind of borrowing wasn’t a big deal, but when authors relied on their words to make money, ripping one another off became a major problem that cut into the bottom line.
As a result, certain conventions came into being to govern how to work with other people’s words honestly. First, direct copying needed to be placed in “quotation marks” to identity which words came from an outside source. Second, writers needed to give credit for ideas that they borrow by explaining where they learned of those ideas and who came up with them. Finally, exact wording couldn’t be recycled from author to author for new writing, because exact phrasing was considered the author’s personal property. These rules carried over into university writing, where the prohibition against plagiarism helped define originality for scholars and academic essay writers.
Today, your professor is following in this tradition and attempting to emphasize the importance of being original as a rule, and of giving credit to your sources when and where you use them. Failing to do this is essentially stealing because you are using the words of someone else to get something of value – academic credit – with phony goods. In the modern university, when you turn in a paper, you are guaranteeing that the words on the paper belong to you and that this is your own original work for which you put in time, effort, and value. When you steal other people’s words and pass them off as your own, you are essentially counterfeiting a paper to defraud your instructor into trading those stolen words for a much more valuable grade. This, at heart, is why plagiarism is considered an academic offence.
These rules don’t just affect college students. Historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin have been accused of plagiarism, as have politicians around the world who have lifted sentences, paragraphs, or whole speeches and used them as their own. In all of these instances, the act of plagiarism is an act of theft because it devalues the original work and tries to appropriate for the thief some of the value of the original without putting in the hard work needed to deliver the real results that the audience expects.