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Episode 117: Brian L. Frye says to plagiarize this podcast

This month, we talk to Brian L. Frye (University of Kentucky College of Law) about how we deal with and react to plagiarism. Click here to listen to our conversation.

Plagiarism is obviously terrible, and plagiarizers should be punished to the full extent of the law. Or should they? Our guest this month thinks there are a number of issues with that position. For one thing, plagiarism isn’t illegal–it’s a social rule that’s unofficially enforced–so it isn’t even clear that the law has much of an ‘extent’ in this case. That is, plagiarists don’t go to jail; they’re just subject to other kinds of punishments, like expulsion from school or social ostracism. In the educational context, Brian L. Frye argues that punishing students for plagiarizing doesn’t contribute to the main purpose of education, which is to make as many students as possible learn as much as possible. If a student cheats on an assignment by copying an article written by someone else, the real problem is that they aren’t learning anything, because they aren’t doing the work they’re supposed to be doing. He thinks that what an instructor should do in that situation is tell the student they’re slacking off and that they need to do the work if they want to learn–rather than go ballistic and do what they can to ensure the student will never work in this town again.

Outside the educational context, a similar argument applies. Brian L. Frye thinks that educators need to remember that their primary goal is to make learning happen. Grading, ranking, flunking, expelling, and those types of things are there to benefit prospective employers, rather than students–but this is backwards. A teacher should prioritize the needs of their students over the needs of their future employers. Similarly, the primary goal of publishing a book is to intellectually transform or otherwise impact readers. So if a book has that level of impact, then it’s doing what it’s supposed to, regardless of whether the material in it is original. According to our guest, what we’re doing when we officially enforce attribution across the board is prioritizing the narrow selfish interests of authors over those of readers. But he thinks that’s getting it backwards: what we should be doing is prioritizing the needs of everyone who might be impacted by a book over the needs of the book’s creators.

This episode gives us a lot to mull over, and I hope you enjoy it. There’s a fair bit more profanity in it than is usually the case on this show, so if anyone listening is sensitive to that sort of thing, they might want to put their profanity goggles on!

Matt Teichman

Posted in Podcast.


6 Responses

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  1. Adam says

    Here are some counter-points, I’d be curious if Frye has any response:

    1) Plagiarism is immoral for the same reason lying is.
    2) Lies that cause harm are more immoral than those that cause less. Plagiarism harms students at universities because your grades and course completions are a guarantee of competence. Engineering disciplines especially would suffer for the lack of this certificate system, but so would law school for instance. But even if you have something against employers and their knowledge of an applicant’s competence, that isn’t in itself justification for harming students who depend on the quality of the certificate. Therefore plagiarism is an especially immoral act because it causes significant harm to a very large number of people.
    3) While any single act of plagiarism causes small harm to any single person, it harms all people who are past, current, or future students of that school. And allowed to aggregate, the harm can be extremely large as the credential’s value approaches 0.
    4) We expel and severely punish plagiarists for the sake of non-plagiarists. The extent of punishment is a deterrent and further justified by the fact that students are made sharply aware, before class starts, that plagiarism carries these consequences.
    5) If copying is an educational tool then professors are free to use it–if it’s not then professors should be free to not use it and demand that students not copy. The ability to copy can be a “confounding variable” in the assessment of a student’s skill, the control for which gives greater accuracy.
    6) If we were to eliminate certification then we should do it honestly, and not through passing certificates which have no capacity to guarantee what it certifies. We might then see the price-tag associated with these certificates equilobrate to their new market value …
    7) What’s to stop wealthy person A from hiring poor student B to perform the intellectual labor, and then A claim it as their own? Now the wealthy person has inflated his own credentials slightly while degrading B’s, and B cannot gain an advantage in spite of her harder work or superior skill.
    8) The fact that you want to teach not police has two responses: a) it is possible to separate out these jobs, and to some extent that’s already happening with automation, but b) this may just be part of the work an academic needs to contribute to the academic system. Just as we require researchers to also do teaching responsibilities and occasionally chair departments.
    9) Proper attribution also rewards the person who produced the value, which is itself a good. This serves the same good that any other kind of reward serves: Just compensation, incentivization, and signals to the community those individuals who have earned an extra increment of trust and interest.
    10) Discriminating about attribution based on your judgment of the individual would be analogous to paying for products only if you judge the firm selling them to be moral. This creates too much incentive for people to assert judgments that they wouldn’t otherwise give weight. Besides, if a racist works an honest day’s work, they should be judged for their racism and paid their wages.

    • Brian L. Frye says

      Thanks for your comment, Adam. You pose a lot of questions! I’ll do my best to answer them.
      1. I’m not sure what you mean by “immoral”? I focus on consequences. Does “lying” always produce bad consequences?
      2. If plagiarism helps students unfairly compete with other students, that is bad. But I see that as a problem with competition & cheating, not a problem with plagiarism. I think my job is to teach students. If copying helps students learn, I want them to copy, whether or not it is called “plagiarism.”
      3. I don’t understand your point. Why assume “plagiarism” causes harm? If it helps students learn, it causes a benefit.
      4. The question is why we care about “plagiarism” enough to punish students for it in the first place. I assume the goal is “learning.” Accordingly, I would prefer to help the student understand why plagiarism may not be consistent with learning.
      5. Sometimes copying assists learning, sometimes it doesn’t. I think that is fine.
      6. I am happy to judge a students competence as necessary. It doesn’t mean I have to rank them against their classmates. They can all be competent.
      7. Sounds like A & B made a mutually-beneficial transaction there.
      8. The point is not what I want, but what is actually justified. How does punishing students for meaningless offenses help them learn? Punishment is rarely therapeutic, especially when it is arbitrary & unjustified.
      9. Yes, plagiarism norms are cartel rules, by which the powerful force others to elevate them in the academic economy, irrespective of their actual merits. I don’t consider that much of an endorsement.
      10. If plagiarism norms are about readers, then readers surely benefit from an exercise of judgment about when attribution is justified & when it isn’t?

  2. Hermit of Hillsboro says

    Admittedly, I quit listening when Frye began ejaculating… “FUCK” is not tolerated in any “philosophy” podcast I care to listen to!

    However, I’m moved to dispute his argument, that student plagiarism is OK because the copied product is merely handed to the teacher, and is not “public-facing”. This only works because of his assumption that the shared purpose of the student and the professor is the student’s education. Seems to me, the purpose of the vast majority of American students nowadays is, to obtain certification (degree) to go into cleaner, higher-paid work than is available to those lacking that punched ticket. So the cheating IS public-facing: the prospective employer is defrauded (if they actually cared much, in this age of grade inflation).

    Anyhow, you can’t plagiarize a math test or a chemistry exam; you can only cheat. So this apology only applies to humanities and social science, and perhaps a history-of-science essay. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider forcing degree candidates who are admittedly indifferent or hostile to the liberal arts, to complete those courses. (And in fairness, to forget about forcing English majors to take chemistry and biology! I remember how much I hated it, in the U of C Common Core in the 70s!)

  3. Brian L. Frye says

    Thanks for your comment! Some professors aspire to be cops policing students in the service of capitalism. Others aspire to convey information & discuss ideas. Different strokes, I guess?

  4. John Snow says

    Hi, I think the interviewer failed to engage Frye properly in a fundamental contradiction of his argument in the second part of the podcast. It is one thing to be able to use an idea, another one not to attribute the idea to the original author. The “author cartel” cares about controlling use of an idea. But, you can use the idea and still giving attribution. Without attribution there would be little incentive for academic research.

    • Brian L. Frye says

      Thanks for your comment, John. As a matter of law, there is no obligation to attribute ideas. The question is whether we should respect extra-legal efforts to force people to attribute ideas. You are correct that scholars find the effective ability to “own” ideas quite valuable in the academic gift economy. But should we endorse their ownership claims? Typically, plagiarism norms are justified as protecting the interests of readers. If so, I think authors should be able to make an independent judgment call whether attribution is warranted. If plagiarism norms are just cartel norms, I guess that is honest? Perhaps we might analogize to other norms, like “snitches get stitches”?



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