Is plagiarism a transgression if only one profits from it and because we have agreed that it is not the right thing to do as a business practice? Two views on the issue of plagiarism - first Stanley Fish followed by our own author Narayan.
....[in] order to have a basis, plagiarism would have to stand on some philosophical ground. But the ground plagiarism stands on is more mundane and firm; it is the ground of disciplinary practices and of the histories that have conferred on those practices a strong, even undoubted (though revisable) sense of what kind of work can be appropriately done and what kind of behavior cannot be tolerated. If it is wrong to plagiarize in some context of practice, it is not because the idea of originality has been affirmed by deep philosophical reasoning, but because the ensemble of activities that take place in the practice would be unintelligible if the possibility of being original were not presupposed.
And if there should emerge a powerful philosophical argument saying there’s no such thing as originality, its emergence needn’t alter or even bother for a second a practice that can only get started if originality is assumed as a baseline. It may be (to offer another example), as I have argued elsewhere, that there’s no such thing as free speech, but if you want to have a free speech regime because you believe that it is essential to the maintenance of democracy, just forget what Stanley Fish said — after all it’s just a theoretical argument — and get down to it as lawyers and judges in fact do all the time without the benefit or hindrance of any metaphysical rap. Everyday disciplinary practices do not rest on a foundation of philosophy or theory; they rest on a foundation of themselves; no theory or philosophy can either prop them up or topple them. As long as the practice is ongoing and flourishing its conventions will command respect and allegiance and flouting them will have negative consequences.
And now Narayan's point of view:
What a strange word to use in lieu of the down-to-earth 'cheating'. My on-line dictionary, a lazybones' OED says of plagiarism : from 'plagium', a kidnapping. On the other hand it says of kidnapping : from kid + nap (slang for nab or sieze). Some deft logic would then suggest the academic crime to be far more heinous than cheating.
In my student days the common parlance was 'cogging' or 'copying'. I don't know how most of us would have gotten our degrees without it, yet, sheepskin in hand, we were not guilt ridden and saw ourselves as ready to enter into legitimate careers. But then we were engineering students and who could tell that the assignments we ended with an implied Q.E.D. were copied Besides, there was surely some code of ethics at play, since the ones who did the assignments on their own would only give chosen others the right to cog. The teachers were helpless in this matter, for it would be tiresome (if not impossible) for them to deal with a student with the correct solution to a problem demanding a fair grading. The teachers though had the last say - you could see smugness on their faces at the dread end of term closed book exams.
I imagine that there are still good universities in the world that still require such exams as the ultimate test of a student's worth. I suspect the Brits invented this system just so they could coin a word like 'invigilator', a far more dread term than 'evil step-mother'.
To my mind, the hand-wringing over plagiarism is peculiar to the business of the humanities, and there the problem is intractable unless teachers are endowed with draconian authority to grade with impunity. Teachers, having come to their trade after themselves suffering and manipulating as students, ought to recognize that fairness in grading is a tenuous concept and entirely subjective, and that plagiarism is just another ploy to work that system. As in the law courts, in schools one may only expect a just grade, not necessarily a fair one, appeals of which may be hazardous to the plagiarist - ultimately, at the risk of 'rustication', another Brit invention.
Outside of academia the rules of the game are less ambiguous. A plagiarist who is caught out is disgraced. The question of morality does not arise. It is not a matter of who will cast the first stone, rather that no stone may be cast because society has determined that the plagiarists sin can be washed away through acts of contrition and the passage of time.
As I see it, Stanley Fish's article is just his bi-weekly word-count obligation to the NYTimes. It says nothing new to me and does not merit being the start of a grand debate. What's the big deal with plagiarism when we have recently seen how eager society is to absolve a famous person of statutory rape - for example.