Q. I’m a good student. Sometimes I make a little extra money by selling my term papers to a website which maintains a kind of archive of papers on various topics. Of course I would never use one of these services, but is it unethical to contribute to them as well?
A. It’s a good thing that you don’t use these services to submit bogus term papers. The very foundation of academia is that the student is judged on his or her own work on an equitable basis; this foundation is completely undermined by any kind of plagiarism.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein points out that copying work in school is not only misleading the school; in many cases it actually constitutes a kind of stealing, because a person may get a job in which the employer is willing to pay only based on the understanding that the employee or professional has certain basic qualifications that the degree testifies to. If the diploma was fraudulently obtained, then the payment is in effect stolen.
Apart from this universal ethical problem, there is the simpler problem: all college students are bound by the academic rules of their institutions, which invariably prohibit plagiarism. So even if this scourge weren’t inherently unethical, it would still be wrong to go against this basic agreement to abide by the rules.
But your question is more subtle. You, yourself, are not engaging in plagiarism; you are only aiding others to do this. Furthermore, there are some convincing arguments in your favor: First of all, many people undoubtedly use these services for permissible reasons, in order to get ideas and references which they will then use as source material for original work. (The truth is that even this is academically questionable if they fail to reference the bought term paper itself.) We might reason that it’s not your fault if some unscrupulous individuals submit the paper as is.
Second of all, you may reason that really you are not contributing to the plagiarism problem at all. There are plenty of other papers out there, and if your paper were missing from the archive there would still be plenty of others.
These arguments are correct, but they are not enough. Jewish law discerns three different levels of connivance with wrongdoing.
1. The most serious level is when a person actually enables wrongdoing. You are indeed off the hook from this point of view because in fact there really are plenty of other people offering the same merchandise.
2. A less serious level, but still ethically improper, is what we call “abetting” a transgression. The exact boundaries of “abetting” depend on many details, including the likelihood that your work will be ultimately used for a permissible reason. And practically speaking, the chances seem overwhelming that your papers are wanted for misleading instructors.
Even a cursory look at the most prominent term paper sites show that they are carefully targeted to meet the needs of students who want to submit the paper they purchase. One site starts out by mentioning that they can’t guarantee a particular grade; only afterwards do they mention that you should use the paper only as a source. Another site implies that plagiarism is illegal only in some places, and in other places it is permissible. Many sites offer special “personalizing” services regarding style and structure, which are of absolutely no use to someone wanting to use the site for reference material but which are very important to students who want to actually submit the downloaded papers.
3. Finally, there is the problem of “condoning” a transgression. This is violated when you give the impression that there is nothing wrong with wrongdoing. The completely anonymous nature of these sites seems to greatly minimize this problem. So for example if you actually wanted to use one of the problematic sites for a legitimate purpose, to obtain ideas or source references, you could do so without seeming to condone the more common illegitimate uses.
The phenomenon of plagiarism demands ethical behavior from students, but it also places demands on instructors to take reasonable steps to avoid putting honest students at a disadvantage. Here are some useful tips:
1. Assign paper topics which are a little off the beaten track. If you ask students to write a paper on “The concept of ‘nature’ in King Lear”, you are inviting trouble. Ask them instead to compare the concept of nature in Lear to that in some other, more obscure work, or to compare it with some provocative suggestion which you compose.
2. Do the same thing for paper structure. Make unconventional demands like requiring some minimal number of citations from the original or demanding that a particular approach to analysis be adopted.
3. Give occasional oral quizzes to students to make sure they understand what they submitted. This may not be enough to make the student write the paper he submits but at the very least it will induce him to read it!
By the way, if you use material from this column, please be sure to attribute it!
SOURCES: Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 151 and commentaries, 334:48 in Rema. Igrot Moshe Choshen Mishpat II:30.