Sunday, August 17, 2014

Casino Mens Rea

Does plagiarism require intent?  When we start with the text, the answer is no.  A plagiarized text does not require intent any more than a rose must wish to be red. Yet when plagiarism is alleged, we inevitably move quickly from text to scholar. Just as inevitably, the question of intent arises, and an imagined continuum begins to haunt the conversation.  On the one side stands a stone cold scholaro-path, ruthlessly stealing others' work, reaping the rewards for it, and using the time saved on original writing to pillage the environment or erode faculty governance.  We are happy to cry vengeance at such a villain. But rarely does one emerge. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continuum stands someone who in a lifetime of true scholarship, inadvertently left a single sentence uncited because he took sloppy notes.  That sentence lurks like a timebomb in the scholar's work, waiting to be set off by a vengeful colleague or political opponent.  None of us wishes this second scholar to be destroyed and most of us, in our 3 a.m. wakings, can imagine this second scholar to be us. And so, through kindness and self-doubt, we let the discussion of intent dominate our discussions of plagiarism.  But is it really the case that focusing on intent protects scholars, let alone scholarship?

The Cabinet's current thinking is that the key to fairness is not considering intent, but considering extent.   After all, if correct citation does not require a particular state of mind, how can plagiarism?  On seeing correct attribution, do we ask, gimlet-eyed, whether the author cited properly because he was truly virtuous?  Of course not.  Nor should we try to look inside the mind of the person who fails to cite.  The text holds the answer of whether there is a problem. And the text  holds the answer of whether there is a serious problem.  Was it one sentence, or ten, and if it was one sentence, was it the key to an argument,  graced with deep meaning, or otherwise distinctive?  It is still a murky realm in which people can disagree, but far less murky than trying to parse the human soul.

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