When is plagiarism cheating?

While it might be clear that plagiarism is a serious offence in academic settings, the rules of the game are different in the business world.

As I develop the course outline for the business ethics course I teach, I am reminded of the university’s academic integrity policy, which contains, among other things, severe penalties for plagiarism. Yet these penalties aren’t enough to convince some students to behave ethically — to identify cheaters, assignments must be submitted to a software program that will compare them to other student and published sources.

The university rules make sense for practical as well as ethical reasons. Universities are fundamentally about learning, but they are also in the business of measuring student performance relative to each other. Allowing students to earn good marks from someone else’s work is unfair to those who don’t cheat and puts the system in jeopardy. Cheating reduces the value of university degrees for all students, if prospective employers can’t be sure the graduates who passed a course actually learned anything.

But do students find the contrast between the academic and business worlds confusing? Consider how an employee in an accounting firm is expected to produce good work. Need a note to the financial statements? Find a precedent and change the names. Produce a tax opinion? Check the databases for a previous document, double-check that the facts are similar and the law hasn’t changed, and copy as much as possible. Employers rightly do not want employees to duplicate research and writing that has already been done, and clients don’t want to pay for it. No one ever cites the original author (even if you could find one, because almost every opinion is based on a prior version). The notion of plagiarism, i.e., stealing someone else’s work, is irrelevant — the note or opinion is considered to come from the firm and not from an individual author.

University students who purchase an essay from one of the many online sources are guilty of an academic offence. But we all know that a CEO’s article in the National Post, a speech to shareholders at the annual meeting and memos to employees were written by someone in the marketing and communication department. The rationale is that the CEO has more important things to do, and presumably the ideas, if not the actual words, are his or hers.

Even for a VIP, there are lines that can’t be crossed. It’s OK to have a communications specialist write your speech, but not OK to copy word for word the speech of another CEO in a different country. Senior executives who write books (for example, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg) now acknowledge that they write them “with” another author (although does anyone remember Nell Scovell, Sandberg’s coauthor?).

When I ask my students if they would cheat in a university course to get a good grade if they could be sure they would not be caught, many of them are honest enough to admit they would. When I ask why, they explain that university grades are just another set of arbitrary rules, and the better your grades the more likely you are to get a good job. You do what you need to do to get ahead. The fact that cheating is defined differently depending on the context helps them justify their answer.

We like to think that ethics is based on a set of fundamental and universal principles, but it’s clear that rules like those against plagiarism are very context specific. It’s what makes the teaching of ethics so interesting — helping students learn to reason their way through the minefield of different motivations, expectations and norms. Bribery is bad, but what about small gratuities to civil servants in foreign countries where everyone pays to get his or her paperwork processed? Lying to shareholders is bad, but what about smoothing out earnings to meet analysts’ expectations? Stiffing your suppliers is bad, but what about stretching out payments to improve your cash flow? Fifty shades of gray, indeed.