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Is Plagiarism Just Bad Manners?

A Counterpoint to Malcolm Gladwell

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager






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If you look at various plagiarism scandals, the most outraged are the ones whose work is plagiarized. For example, poets Rachel McKibbens, Wanda DeGlane, Brenna Twohy, and Hieu Minh Nguyen, all of whose work Ailey O’Toole plagiarized, made their wrath well known on social media.

That’s an understandable reaction, right?

But not for Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell, who’s been accused of plagiarism and has himself been plagiarized, said in a recent Daily Beast interview that “Plagiarism is just bad manners,” and not a journalistic sin. This ignited a furor on twitter.

And it’s not the first time he’s dismissed plagiarism. According to a 2015 piece by Marc Fisher entitled “Steal this Idea” in the Columbia Journalism Review, Gladwell says that “the notion of originality” is “the narcissism of small differences: Because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.” As a result, Gladwell began to overlook what he saw as small indiscretions, dismissing the notion “that a writer’s words have a virgin birth and an eternal life.”

Is this because Gladwell doesn’t understand what plagiarism is? Nope. It’s clear Gladwell has a concrete understanding of plagiarism. In the Daily Beast interview he iterates plagiarism perfectly within the context of defending himself:

“I...credited the source of the passage. So, first of all, that’ s not what I call plagiarism. Plagiarism is when you represent the words of someone else without giving any credit whatsoever. I, a) did not use the exact words, and b) gave them credit....The issue with any kind of creative work is when people appropriate someone else’s ideas without giving them credit. That’s the core issue...My answer, way back when, was talking about a real issue of plagiarism where someone took my words—and took them in totality, took paragraphs of them without giving any credit. And my response to that, which I think should be the response of anyone who’s plagiarized in that way, is: so what, whatever. Who cares? The person took the words and made something new. I’m fine with that! Why is this what we’re talking about? Like, there are so many more consequential things we need to be discussing.”

He continues:

“It’s bad manners. I don’t think the person who plagiarized me should have lost her job. I don’t care.”

Here’s the thing: “I don’t care” is the root cause of plagiarism. “I don’t care what the teacher says. I don’t care about learning. I don’t care from where these ideas come. I don’t care about formatting correctly. I don’t care about attribution.”

It’s this apathy that leads to academic misconduct. To plagiarism. To contract cheating. To collusion. “I don’t care” doesn’t get you very far in life. Unless of course, you’ve already gotten very far in life and then have the privilege to “not care” anymore.

The fact is that even The Society of Professional Journalists clearly begins their position on plagiarism with the statement, “Never plagiarize.” And further expands by yet another resolute statement, “Whether inadvertent or deliberate, there is no excuse for plagiarism.

How much more clear can it get?

Do we normalize bad habits and misconduct when they’re made in such great numbers? There’s a difference between mainstreaming words that once were commonly misspelled and the theft of others’ ideas and words.

Understandably, the digital landscape has blurred some of the lines when it comes to plagiarism. And students too are negotiating digital technology and attribution. But that doesn’t make copying bootleg videos legal. That doesn’t make copying and pasting text from the internet ethical. These new frontiers are challenges. But they are not an excuse.

It’s a slippery slope to dismiss plagiarism as “bad manners” or that “it’s no big deal.” What else isn’t a big deal? What else is bad manners? To what other challenges will we as a society surrender and bend? Is accelerating through a red or yellow light bad manners? Is dumping lead paint into a public drain bad manners?

Bad manners are things without long term consequence. Chewing with your mouth open is bad manners. Stopping in front of escalators to chat with a friend is bad manners.

Running a yellow light has consequences on public safety. Lead paint into a public drain has consequences on environmental safety. These are beyond bad manners, just as plagiarism is beyond a matter of manners.

In 2010, Stanley Fish wrote about being plagiarized by colleagues in a New York Times Opinion piece:

“Whenever it comes up plagiarism is a hot button topic and essays about it tend to be philosophically and morally inflated. But there are really only two points to make. (1) Plagiarism is a learned sin. (2) Plagiarism is not a philosophical issue.”

It’s a learned sin. So what are we learning when plagiarism is dismissed as “bad manners?” When it’s normalized as a result of pontification and opinion?

Fish concludes by saying, “This brings me back to the (true) story I began with. Whether there is something called originality or not, the two scholars who began their concluding chapter by reproducing two of my pages are professionally culpable. They took something from me without asking and without acknowledgment, and they profited — if only in the currency of academic reputation — from work that I had done and signed. That’s the bottom line and no fancy philosophical argument can erase it.”

Whatever the reasons, whatever the context, whatever the challenges, stealing is stealing. It’s more than bad manners. Plagiarism affects livelihoods. Plagiarism affects reputation. Plagiarism affects careers. Plagiarism affects morale. There are consequences when plagiarism occurs.

Unless of course, you have a solid livelihood, an established reputation, an established career, and you therefore “don’t care.”

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