The Personality of Plagiarism

Article excerpt

Contrary to the water-cooler hypothesis of educators, journalism and mass communication students who plagiarize do not differ from their non-copying peers in the "Big Five" personality traits (study 1, n = 908). However, the two groups differ in a scale that measures integrity on a continuum between principles and expediency (study 2, n = 483). They also differ when asked to evaluate types of copy-and-paste Internet plagiarism. JMC majors do not differ from those in other disciplines in their propensity to commit plagiarism. The two studies show students consider plagiarism a relative offense and offer suggestions for educators trying to reduce its prevalence.

In casual conversations on campus and in the hallways of academic conferences, journalism and mass communication educators sometimes discuss the obstinate mystery of plagiarism. Why does the offense continue to plague their undergraduate classrooms and graduate seminars when mass communication instructors preach against plagiarism and students are often told that serious episodes can result in a failing course grade or worse?1 Some educators postulate that offenders are lazy or perhaps in over their heads.2 Others wonder if plagiarists are psychologically distinct from other students.

Educators are not the only ones who suspect that mental states play a role in plagiarism. In 2000, Editor & Publisher consulted a dozen psychologists to diagnose why professional journalists plagiarize, but none could offer insight.3 A psychology professor cited as a national expert on ethics, Stuart Offenbach, said he could offer little to explain the roots of plagiarism "because I don't understand them."4 One reporter caught plagiarizing in 2008 expressed hope that therapy could reveal why he had plagiarized.5 Three of seven explanations a journalism critic suggested to explain why plagiarism occurs were appeals to psychology.8 When a Boston Globe writer examined plagiarism, he interviewed a psychotherapist, a psychiatrist, and a therapist.7 Newsweek quoted a psychiatrist who interpreted plagiarism as "a desperate attempt to salvage selfesteem."8 Thomas Mallon, who wrote about literary plagiarism in Stolen Words,9 said, "You cannot escape the conclusion there's a psychological element to it."10 Thus, the core purpose of this study is to test the informal hypothesis that plagiarists differ psychologically from non-plagiarists.

Literature Review

Plagiarism is passing off another's work as one's own.11 However, "no single, standard definition" emerged in an examination of nearly seventy writing instruction textbooks,12 and journalism instructors disagree on what constitutes plagiarism.13 Amplifying the definitional ambiguity is that journalistic plagiarism is sometimes conflated with fabrication14 even though omitting attribution is profoundly different from creating fiction. Still, plagiarism is considered a serious ethical infraction for both students and professionals,15 worthy of expulsion,16 or dismissal.17

Perhaps because the offense is universally condemned, relatively few studies have been published on journalism and mass communication student plagiarism. A researcher measuring whether being prompted to think about death would affect the ethical position of journalism students threw out a question about plagiarism because almost every respondent scored it as unacceptable.18 A majority of journalism students at a Midwestern university saw the offense as seldom occurring in their college.19 Student attitudes toward penalties for plagiarism and fabrication combined differ according to whether their major was journalism or advertising/public relations, with the former more likely to impose harsher sanctions.20 But studies have differed in whether years spent in college affect student perspectives regarding the severity of plagiarism. Reinardy and Moore found that graduating print journalism students were less condemning of plagiarism than were introductory students. …