The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines plagiarism as, “the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person” (“Plagiarism” 4). Failing to properly cite a borrowed idea in an assignment, using quotes without proper attribution, and simply taking credit for work authored by someone else are all acts of plagiarism. Plagiarism is taken seriously by academia because it undermines the meaning of integrity of the department where plagiarized work has been submitted, and deliberate plagiarism represents an act of fraud. However, it is insufficient to penalize a student on the basis of an absolute definition. When prosecuting acts of plagiarism, college administrators must consider the intent of the student who committed the act and make adjustments to the public when factors, such as mental health problems, hinder the ability of a student to be fully accountable for his or her decision to plagiarize.
Because plagiarism is often conceived as an “academic crime,” evaluations of plagiarism should conform with legal guidelines for assessing a crime. As behavioral scholars David C. Carson and Alan R. Felthous point out, Western common law systems consider mens rea, or the “state of mind” that an individual is in when deciding whether an individual can be penalized for a crime (Carson and Felthous 559). Under the principle of mens rea, it is not enough that an individual committed a crime for authorities to find that person guilty. The individual must have the capacity to have thought through and understood the implications of his or her conduct (Carson and Felthous 559). Typically, mental health problems are sufficient in a legal system to call into question whether an individual can be held accountable for his or her actions (Carson and Felthous 559). In the case of plagiarism, administrators should consider whether trauma that a student suffered might have impacted his or her judgment. As Nicholas Polly notes, early childhood trauma, physical or emotional, has the ability to rewire the brain, at any age (Polly 16). Because a student may be subject to neurological changes that undermine his or her ability to think, administrators cannot rightfully apply severe sanctions on troubled students who plagiarize following a traumatic event.
The reason administrators should take mens rea and the psychological ramifications of trauma into account when adjudicating on cases of plagiarism is because academic officials have a wider responsibility to the community and the student body. While plagiarism is serious, so is the wellbeing of students. Though punishment sends the signal that the college is serious about plagiarism, it can also lower the morale of students who are facing mental problems or undergoing trauma that is similar to that of the plagiarizer. Administrators have other tools at their disposal to handle acts of plagiarism that will teach the offender a lesson and foster a supportive environment for students undergoing traumatic situations. Instead of severe punishments, creative provisions should be adopted that enable a student to receive help and make up for his or her crime. Further, as the home of enlightened individuals, academia should be the first place where the foundational principle of mens rea is applied and where research regarding trauma is considered when reviewing a case of plagiarism.
Opponents of this position may argue that academia has a sole responsibility to preserve the integrity of its academic programs and that intent should have no bearing on determining whether an individual has can be penalized for plagiarism. Further, the main weakness of the main thesis is that it may be difficult for administrators to determine when they are true case of trauma without possessing medical expertise. However, while these counterarguments should be considered, they should not deter college administrators from developing considerate sanctions.
Carson, David C., and Alan R. Felthous. “Introduction to This Issue: Mens Rea” Behavioral Sciences & the Law, vol. 13 no. 1, 2004, pp. 559-562.
"Plagiarism." Merriam-Webster.com. n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.
Polly, Nichols. “No Disposable Kids: A Developmental Look at Disposability”. Reclaiming Children and Youth, vol. 13 no. 1, 2004, pp. 5-11.