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This month, we talk to Brian L. Frye (University of Kentucky College of Law) about how we deal with and react to plagiarism. Click here to listen to our conversation.

Plagiarism is obviously terrible, and plagiarizers should be punished to the full extent of the law. Or should they? Our guest this month thinks there are a number of issues with that position. For one thing, plagiarism isn’t illegal–it’s a social rule that’s unofficially enforced–so it isn’t even clear that the law has much of an ‘extent’ in this case. That is, plagiarists don’t go to jail; they’re just subject to other kinds of punishments, like expulsion from school or social ostracism. In the educational context, Brian L. Frye argues that punishing students for plagiarizing doesn’t contribute to the main purpose of education, which is to make as many students as possible learn as much as possible. If a student cheats on an assignment by copying an article written by someone else, the real problem is that they aren’t learning anything, because they aren’t doing the work they’re supposed to be doing. He thinks that what an instructor should do in that situation is tell the student they’re slacking off and that they need to do the work if they want to learn–rather than go ballistic and do what they can to ensure the student will never work in this town again.

Outside the educational context, a similar argument applies. Brian L. Frye thinks that educators need to remember that their primary goal is to make learning happen. Grading, ranking, flunking, expelling, and those types of things are there to benefit prospective employers, rather than students–but this is backwards. A teacher should prioritize the needs of their students over the needs of their future employers. Similarly, the primary goal of publishing a book is to intellectually transform or otherwise impact readers. So if a book has that level of impact, then it’s doing what it’s supposed to, regardless of whether the material in it is original. According to our guest, what we’re doing when we officially enforce attribution across the board is prioritizing the narrow selfish interests of authors over those of readers. But he thinks that’s getting it backwards: what we should be doing is prioritizing the needs of everyone who might be impacted by a book over the needs of the book’s creators.

This episode gives us a lot to mull over, and I hope you enjoy it. There’s a fair bit more profanity in it than is usually the case on this show, so if anyone listening is sensitive to that sort of thing, they might want to put their profanity goggles on!

Matt Teichman