When you filled out your Davidson application, you included an essay on the Davidson Honor Code. Looking at some of the essays over the years, I've noticed that new students who have visited the campus often write about seeing books or backpacks unattended, or about unlocked doors, or about unsupervised exams.
I've never yet seen an essay that mentioned being impressed by the footnotes in a student host's paper or the thoroughness of its bibliography. Academic documentation isn't the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about a community of honor and trust. Sadly, however, the lack of documentation--plagiarism--is among the first things that come to mind when we hear that the Honor Council has conducted a hearing.
It's easy to see why application essays seldom make plagiarism a major theme; mine wouldn't, either. And it isn't always easy to see why people, especially teachers, get so upset about documentation in a paper. You can write--though I hope you won't--papers that have commas in the wrong places, or that aren't organized well, or are just plain boring. Write such papers, and you won't get good grades on them; but no one will suggest that you've done something dishonorable. Get careless with recording where ideas or data or words come from, however, and someone might suspect that your sense of honor is not what this community expects it to be.
Why should neglecting to cite your sources be such a big deal? Why does one sort of error in writing a paper or a lab report or anything else have implications that no other sort of error does?
Let's concede that teachers sometimes muddy up the issue of acknowledging sources. We tell you that we want you to use footnotes or that we want you to use parenthetical citation instead. Trying to be helpful, some will say you must use quotation marks if you quote more than four consecutive words; others might say six words; and all then get bogged down in whether those counts include words like "the" or "and." Many of us will tell you not to cite "common knowledge," but are unlikely to provide helpful definitions of what "common knowledge" might be or give much attention to the issue of "common to what group." In many classes, you are likely to have engaged in collaborative or group work, and are not obsessed with who in the group actually put something into certain words, or who did the experiment or conducted the survey providing which items of data. Quite properly, many of your teachers have emphasized the importance of revision as part of writing, leaving you wondering whether the revision of a paper written for one class might not be an acceptable paper for another. Teachers will hand you something to read, praising its scholarship and its academic reputation--and looking closely, you'll sometimes discover that like textbooks throughout your school years, its pages are remarkably free from footnotes, citations, or anything more elaborate than a long bibliography.
Then you come to college; you sit down together to reflect on the Honor Code; and you scatter to a lot of classes where teachers will discuss "plagiarism" with you as though you've never heard the term or thought about the concept at all.
It's my assumption that you have thought about plagiarism before; it's my thesis that your thoughts on the subject have become unavoidably cluttered; and it is my hope that if I can helpfully ask you to do anything this evening, it is to clear away the clutter and get to the principle: what are the matters of honor that underlie the concept of plagiarism?
Let me start with a concrete example. I suspect that everyone here would agree that it would be wrong for you to purchase a paper, or to copy one in its entirety from the web or anywhere else, and submit it unchanged over your own name. Your values tell you that to do so is dishonorable.
Why? What value, what ethical principle tells you that the action I described is wrong? Why did you agree that copying a paper is not an honorable action? By what principle did you judge?
Let me suggest one possible ethical principle: it is not honorable to seek or to accept credit for another person's work. I'm not going to give you time right now to think about that principle; when you do, you'll come up with some exceptions. That we recognize the existence of professional ghostwriters might suggest one of them. So, let me modify the principle: it is not honorable to seek or to accept credit for another person's work without acknowledging that person appropriately. The acknowledgment might be related in a way to another broad principle: when someone helps us, we should express our thanks.
The seemingly elaborate structures of citation and documentation allow us to acknowledge gratefully the help of others, even when those others are people we've never met or people who are long dead. The ethical or honorable principle, after all, concerns what we say, not what someone else hears.
My example had to do with copying an entire paper, and I said from the beginning that you were unlikely to think of that action as honorable. I will say to you, as well, that to the best of my knowledge, such things seldom happen at Davidson. We are fortunate to have students who take the Honor Code seriously; you are the latest in many generations to give it life. The extreme examples are seldom the source of difficulty.
But the principle behind the extreme example is the principle behind less extreme ones. Given the assumption that work with your name on it is fully your own work, written for one specific class, how would you react to a paper that was fifty per cent copied from elsewhere? Ten per cent? One paragraph? Four words, or six, with or without "the" or "and"? Don't think about the numbers; think about the principle: it is not honorable to seek or to accept credit for another's work without appropriately acknowledging that person. All the methods of documentation exist to provide ways to acknowledge help appropriately. Which way you use may vary from class to class, and it is annoying to learn different sets of rules. But the method of acknowledgment has little to do with plagiarism; the principle deals with the existence of acknowledgment.
I must add one caution in which method seems to overlap principle: simply providing a list of your sources, assuming that might free you from the need to put quotation marks around specific passages and citations next to them, or to give specific references for particular facts, dilutes your acknowledgment, makes it so general that it will probably be deemed inadequate and potentially dishonorable. For college work, simply listing sources at the end usually will not prove adequate.
That is true in part because there's a second principle at work. Our Honor Code exists as an expression of community, not just of individual actions. A paper you write, or any other work you submit, is more than just something you trade in for a grade in a private transaction with a teacher. Your papers and your other work represent one of many ways in which you contribute something to a community of learning. Your reader, even if the teacher is the only one, can learn from your paper. Your reader may want to pursue the subject further; and your careful and detailed citation helps the curious reader share your experience of inquiry and of learning. Citation and documentation are both acknowledgment and assistance, in other words; they help you give to others as well as record what you have gained from others. It may be difficult to see a footnote as an act of giving, but it is one; make it as helpful as you can. It leads your reader along the path you have explored.
Each of you will encounter discussions of plagiarism and the like in many of your classes. My examples center on papers in part because of the nature of what I teach; the principles of not accepting credit for another's work apply as well to problem sets, to lab reports, and to many other types of assignment. In different classes you will hear about different methods of acknowledgment and about some differences in expectation. If you are left wondering, raise questions with your teacher. If it's late at night and the teacher isn't around to answer such questions, always tell your reader where your material came from. It's much better to document or cite your sources too often than too rarely.
In addition to principles, you might even consider a practical rule--which I adapt from a phrase so widespread as to be common knowledge: Do ask; do tell. Ask your teachers what their expectations are; tell what your source was if you have any doubt whether you should.
The slogan may get you through the two a.m. dilemmas--but only if your notetaking has been good. The slogan is worth remembering for emergencies--and it is worth remembering, as well, that it is difficult to retrace your research at two in the morning to find a page number or a URL that you forgot to write down.
But it doesn't do what this evening should do: remind us all that the Honor Code is not a set of rules, but an affirmation of ourselves as a community. Among other things, ours is a community of trust. Trust means that we will have expectations about each other. But with matters of academic honor, as of all other kinds, our highest expectations should be of ourselves: to embody the values we admire, to make the Honor Code our own, and to be able to say--in my case, many years since I first sat where you are--that the Honor Code is not just a bunch of admirable words. I can tell you that it has enriched and enlightened the Davidson community for a long time, and I know that you will both cherish its benefits and keep its light aglow.