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Just wondering


It would be bad news if a student in the class of Laurence Tribe or Alan Dershowitz or Ian Ayres or Edward Wegman or Matthew Whitaker or Karl Weick or Frank Fischer were to hand in an assignment that is obviously plagiarized copied from another source without attribution. Would the prof have the chutzpah to fail the student, or would he just give the student an A out of fear that the student would raise a ruckus if anything were done about it?

But it would be really bad news if everyone in the class were to do this. For example, suppose the students were to do the work for real—that is, individually write their own, non-plagiarized papers and put them in a file somewhere—and then make alternative, plagiarized papers to hand in. Perhaps, just to make sure the prof or the overworked teaching assistant doesn’t miss it, the students would even cite the wikipedia entries they’re copying from. Then they’d sit back and wait and see what happens. It would be important, though, that the students write actual papers on their own, because otherwise they’d be missing out on the chance to learn the material, which after all is the real purpose of taking the course.

In any case, this would be a bad situation. It’s not clear how the prof would have the moral authority to fail a student for an offense that he, the professor, had committed without suffering any penalty. But I wouldn’t recommend the students try it. They might just get expelled anyway for the combined violations of plagiarism and embarrassing the university.

It’s like smoking crack in Toronto. It’s still illegal even if the boss does it.


  1. Daniel Gotthardt says:

    And please students, don’t do that. We obviously would not want to see that happening at all.

  2. K? O'Rourke says:

    Here is one that actually happened. My girlfriend at the time was in a time series course and most of the class starting copying their assignments from someone in the course who already knew the material (just getting the credit). In one of the assignments, that person made a transcription error and about 70% percent of the class copied it on.

    Now the prof, who apparently was also copying from the same person, marked the wrong papers as correct and many actually correct papers as wrong.

    I tried talking her into getting this dealt with but the 70% had convinced the ones who did their own work not to ruin thier careers.

    > It’s still illegal even if the boss does it.

    But he has, in his own words, the best lawyer in the country, who has advised him not to discuss any of this with the police.

  3. dcres says:

    “… set me up!”- Marion Barry. Classic.

  4. Dan Riley says:

    What if a student could manage to plagiarize a passage that their prof. had plagiarized?

  5. Mason says:

    Rules are for the ruled, not the rulers.

    That’s fundamental to a modern legal education.

  6. Steve Sailer says:

    Celebrity philosopher Slavoj Zizek appears to have pretty much copied a large slab of prose from American Renaissance magazine:

    • Andrew says:

      Ha! This one reminds me of Wegman’s work for the congressional committee: Zizek, like Wegman, appears to be copying from his ideological opponents. You’d think that if someone were to plagiarize, that he’d have the decency to only copy from people he agreed with.

      • John Mashey says:

        I’d reframe that a little differently, in that the ideology may have been behind the Wegman Report, but the opponents were doing science. After the dust settled, the sequence was clear:

        1) Wegman and his students were trying to discredit Mann, Bradley and Hughes(1999), but had zero relevant expertise in paleoclimate and did not talk to any paleoclimate scientists.

        2) To make the report seem seem remotely credible, they copied text from Bradley’s well-known book Paleoclimatology – reconstructing climates of the Quaternary(1999), but also added some other text, and inverted a few conclusions they didn’t want. Once the plagiarism was detected and displayed, the falsifications became more obvious.

        3)Anyway, I think there is a subtle difference between:

        a) Plagiarism to create what seems original content.

        b) Plagiarism that has no pretense of original content, but is done to create an illusion of expertise, somewhat akin to Wegman&Said’s heavy use of Wikipedia in WIREs:CS. Of course, there, there wasn’t obvious falsification, but they did the trick of using text, including references, but without citing the Wikipedia page itself. I think that one is more common.

        4) Everybody missed this when it first appeared, but I think it’s common:
        a) Non-experts might read that section carefully and be impressed.
        b) Experts would spend little time on introductory material, just glance at it, and seeing some reasonable words, move on.

  7. Steve Sailer says:

    Well, there’s a certain genius to what Zizek did, which helped him get away with it for eight years — copy from a publication whom your followers are utterly unaware of and would be unable to read for more than a paragraph before Crimestop shuts down all their cognitive processes.

    Zizek isn’t stupid.

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