The Future of Plagiarism

I must admit to walking away from Carrie James’ chapter Property feeling dissatisfied. Throughout, the reader is treated ad nauseam to the rather pedestrian idea that different people have different ideas about things. When it comes to citations for academic work, for example, some students feel an ethical obligation to “do the right thing”, while others simply worry about being caught.

What are we supposed to take from this? This is, after all, the kind of commonplace thinking humans engage in all the time about a whole host of endeavours. Some people refuse to rob banks because it’s unethical. Others would do it but don’t fancy twenty years behind bars. A small number do carry out the deed – just like the plagiarist – either because they don’t care if it’s unethical or that they think the potential reward is worth the risk.


The essay states that “conversations about attribution in schoolwork should shift from an emphasis on punishment to a discussion of the ethical dimensions of citation”. As someone who works in academia this makes sense. Most of my students are very aware that plagiarism is unethical and I seldom have any issues with it, but beyond even that, in 2017 we can run essays and other academic work through programmes to detect anything untoward. Students today are more tech savvy than ever before. They know plagiarism detectors exist. Therefore we can presume many cases of plagiarism today are either a) a technical inability to correctly cite material or b) a simple misunderstanding of the ethical issues surrounding intellectual copyright.

The heavy punishments for plagiarism in days gone by were probably necessary as deterrence. Before the existence of online and electronic databases it would have been very easy to plagiarise a few paragraphs from an obscure book found in the dusty corner of a vast library and get away with it. The punishment had to be scary enough to deter people from doing that. Now we live in a different age and different “punishments” are necessary, if they’re necessary at all. I would argue that students who receive low or failing grades for plagiarism early in life (now easily detectable as already mentioned) don’t need lessons in ethics, lessons rendered pointless due to the fact that the technology currently exists to catch the vast majority of cheaters. Much of the responsibility now lies with educators to ensure wrongdoers are caught.


James, Carrie. Disconnected: Youth, New Media, And The Ethics Gap. 1st ed. MIT Press, 2014. Print.