Plagiarism and Values Work

One of my research projects looks at what I call “values work” — the distributed, interactive, contested, and ongoing process through which an organization’s values are repeatedly performed, assessed, and justified over time. The concept of values work emerged from research into the development of new honor code values practices within a large business school over a period of nearly ten years.

Given our research setting, several recent articles caught my eye. In “Plagiarism Is Not a Big Moral Deal,” Stanley Fish argues that stealing someone’s words is hardly the moral equivalent of stealing someone’s property, such as their car. Rather, “plagiarism is [a] breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe.” In other words, plagiarism is a “learned sin,” one that “is learned in more specialized contexts of practice entered into only by a  few.” It is “an insider’s obsession,” where the insiders are mostly journalists, academics and scientists. Nonetheless, as Fish notes, for these insiders the consequences of plagiarism can be quite serious.

At the same time, another article in the New York Times suggests that plagiarism has become quite ubiquitous among students. It appears that authorship and originality are no longer all that meaningful to many students. Of course, as Foucault demonstrated in his essay “What Is an Author?,” the notion of an author “constitutes the privileged notion of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy and the sciences.” As such, plagiarism depends upon an Enlightenment ideal of the individual, and a Western conception of intellectual property rights. By comparison, Ms. Blum “contends that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity… than in trying on many different personas, which the web enables with social networking.”

In other words, a huge tension exists — between the “learned sins” of academic insiders and the “mashup” culture of self-expression now prevalent among many students. And yet, despite these tensions — or perhaps because of them — colleges and universities appear to be redoubling their efforts at curbing and controlling plagiarism. For instance, “To Stop Cheats,” the University of Central Florida has built a state of the art testing center — or what Foucault might have called a panopticon. Recently, the associate dean in charge of the center boasted that of 64,000 exams administered, only 14 cheating incidents were suspected.

Perhaps we should be relieved, or perhaps we should consider just what kind of society is required for such values work to remain dominant. As Foucault asked in Discipline and Punish: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (p. 228).  He concluded it is not at all surprising: “The power to punish is not essentially different from that of curing or educating” (p. 303). “It functions as a normative power… The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge… [E]ach individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements” (p. 304).

In short, values work is everywhere, calling out for heightened attention. “We must hear the distant roar of battle… of the power of normalization and the formation of knowledge in modern society” (p. 308).