Case Studies in Ethics

Right now I am working with my business writing students on ethics’ research. They are doing primary as well as secondary research.

So, Erin O’Connor’s Case Study in Academic Ethics really caught my attention.

It begins with a letter to the Chronicle‘s Ms. Mentor. The instructor is aware that the student probably did not write a paper for her class. The student is married to Big Wig and the instructor supposes Big Wig wrote the paper for the student. Ms. Mentor says to keep safe and not be a martyr.

As I have had to deal with minimal support for censuring plagiarism, this caught my attention. The student who had particularly egregious plagiarisms also had a paper that I doubt seriously that he wrote. (Yes, if I were called as an expert witness I would testify to that.) Just like the instructor in the letter, though, the paper wasn’t purchased off the internet. Someone wrote it for the student personally.

Sometimes you can catch students at this. Have them come in and discuss the paper with you. Ask them for explanations of vocabulary they used that was significantly beyond them.

But if this instructor did that, the Big Wig would not be happy with her. (Obviously not if he wrote the plagiarized paper, as the instructor surmises.)

Erin O’Connor is not happy with this. “[I]t’s this sort of “not my problem, save my own ass” attitude that lies at the root of the widespread problems academia is having with establishing and maintaining ethical standards.”

Imagine that the school cultivated a local culture in which adhering to the highest standards of integrity was a matter of pride–and mutual responsibility. Imagine what that would mean for the quality of research produced and also for the morale of departments and colleges. Imagine, too, that this pride translated into classrooms where hard work and honest effort were rewarded–and where plagiarism, cheating, and slacking were not. Imagine what that would mean for learning–not just about subject matter and skills, but also about what it feels like to work hard, to be honest, and to bank your future on your merits, rather than on your ability to game the system. Imagine that.

My other college is doing this. It is a matter of pride that the college supports the ethics of integrity.

It is an issue of integrity versus… When we choose our careers over integrity, we don’t value integrity (as Dr. L.M. Smith of Texas A&M pointed out to me recently).

Of course, I’ve been a whistleblower before. I know that mine worked out very well and many people’s don’t. I also know that right now I don’t have a “career,” so there’s not much that would change if I were in a position to blow the whistle.

HOWEVER, there is one thing Ms. O’Connor did not consider. The instructor in question has no proof of plagiarism. She doesn’t have a purchased paper or one which was stolen off the internet. I wouldn’t be surprised if she couldn’t talk to the Big Wig’s wife and trip her up, but how would that prove plagiarism?

So, really, the instructor doesn’t have an opportunity to pull the plug on plagiarism. She has no proof and in this country, even when you are guilty, you are considered innocent until it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty.

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