Plagiarism for Dummies: Why Cheating Students Are Missing the Point of Education

To hear college professors tell it, the current wave of student cheating and plagiarism is brand new to higher education. Alas, student plagiarism, especially of the “Can I use your paper for my assignment?” variety, has probably been around since there has been organized schooling, let alone colleges or universities. Fortunately, this problem has never completely taken over colleges and universities for the same reason that college professors crack down on it in the first place. That reason is simple and has been summed up best by the great early 20th century artist Pablo Picasso: “Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.”

Picasso may have been a jerk in his personal life, but he was a smart guy when it came to being a student of his art. He grasped young the basic point of education in anything-you’re there to learn. When you use a source, examine the information, see how you can make it work to support your own piece of writing, then reshape and refit it to make it evidence for your argument (using quotes where appropriate). Then, cite it in your paper to show where you found your evidence, so that the reader can follow your research and also learn. Learning is the point, especially in college.

College students who cheat or plagiarize don’t get this. The grade may seem the most important thing, but that’s not why students, or their parents, paid all that money to get into a college or university. It’s not why you get a college degree and it’s not why employers will hire a college graduate. A student goes to college for one reason: to get an education. In this education, students learn skills that will help them in life and help them get a job. Grades are meant to show both the student and others who may hire a graduate or accept one into higher education what students have learned and how well they learned it – in other words, the quality of the education. But beyond that, grades don’t mean very much. This also holds true for SATs, GREs, MATs and every other general or subject test out there. They test how much you’ve learned.

Cheating and plagiarizing don’t help you learn these skills. This means that the higher up cheating students go, the less competent they are in their studies and the less comfortable they feel. In other words, cheating students cheat themselves out of their own education. The college or university goes after them, not just because their behavior cheapens college degrees in general and tarnishes the reputation of any institution that gives them a degree, but because cheating students are not getting what they paid for. And they’re doing it all to themselves.

It’s become popular to blame students solely for this situation in higher education, but other reasons and actors come into play. Anyone even considering cheating on an exam or plagiarizing a paper needs to know about these reasons to make a smarter decision. Grading is more of an art than a science among college professors, which means that college level grades can mean wildly different things for different classes. Life isn’t fair and some college professors are not good at their jobs. However, if students cheat, they miss out on an opportunity to learn how to deal with a tough situation that they will encounter in life again and again. Failure is a part of life and every student must learn to deal with it. Also, ironically, many of the professors who grade the hardest will also teach a student the most. In cheating or plagiarizing a paper to get a good grade, you can miss out on the entire point of taking a really hard class.

Varied grading criteria wouldn’t be such a problem if college departments, particularly in the hard sciences, didn’t use grades to weed out students they don’t want. Cheating may seem like a way to get around this, but plagiarizing work, in particular, only gets a student so far. Eventually, you have to start producing original work that can’t be plagiarized. Also, college classes build on skills learned in previous courses, which means that if a student never learned the skills in the basic courses, he or she will do badly in the later ones. If you cheated on Chemistry 101 to get a good grade, I can guarantee you’ll struggle in Organic Chemistry.

Colleges also don’t help themselves (or students) when they let students off the hook for cheating or plagiarism. When you get out into the workplace and you can’t do what your degree says you can do, or you are caught plagiarizing someone else’s work (and you don’t get caught), you get fired. If you cheat or plagiarize to get into graduate school, you may coast for a while. But keep in mind that those programs are designed to encourage unfit students to weed themselves out. If you don’t have a passion (or a talent) for your subject, avoid graduate school. Neither plagiarism nor cheating will help you shine on that career track. Also, keep in mind that the higher you go up the college ladder, the higher the penalties are if you do get caught and punished for either cheating or plagiarism. And the easier it is to get caught, since colleges and universities expect more and more original work from a student as he or she progresses. Cheating or plagiarizing in graduate school requires more work than it’s worth, involving actively buying material from others that is custom-made to fit the graduate program. If you are caught cheating or plagiarizing at the doctoral level, your career could be over before it begins. Cheating or plagiarizing work at a post-doctoral or professional level can get you fired, sued or even sent to jail.

So, the next time you think about plagiarizing, think about how you’re cheating yourself. Think about the long-term skills and life lessons you won’t be learning as a student. And when you’re done weighing the options, just say no.

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