Chris Spence: author, columnist, educator, serial plagiarizer. And now former director of the Toronto District School Board. It turns out that Dr. Spence, as he likes to be addressed, has been passing off others’ work as his own for some time, perhaps going back to his Ph.D dissertation. Evidence of plagiarism has been found in his speeches, newspaper articles, academic papers, online postings and blogs. Forensic specialists are on Dr. Spence like white on rice.
Dr. Spence is one in a long line of men holding distinguished positions who have risked it all on account of an itchy trigger finger. (Command+C on the keyboard and the online world is your oyster). It’s never been easier to scoop up tasty morsels of text and fold them in to enrich your own plain cake batter. With everything now carrying a digital trace, it’s also never been easier to get caught in the act. Writers for such august journals as The New Yorker and The New York Times have tripped over their outsize egos and fallen into the same dark pit, losing good jobs, indexed pension plans and professional reputations along the way.
Why do seemingly intelligent people do this?
Laziness has got to play a part. It’s just too damn easy to steal intellectual property. You sit in your comfortable study, a steaming mug of coffee by your side and tap-tap-tap your way to an Ali Baba’s treasure trove of research studies, academic papers, pithy opinion columns and the like. It sure beats being a cat burglar, scaling steep rooftops on windy nights to score some rich lady’s diamonds.
Insecurity is another factor. When a cursory online review of a subject brings up scores of incisive and eloquent commentaries, it can knock your confidence down. You’re crestfallen to discover that whatever you planned to say has already been said, and much better than your garbled efforts could ever do. What’s your option? “Copy/Paste, dude,” whispers the red devil on your shoulder. A research study on plagiarism found that younger students tend to plagiarize more than mature students which lends credence to the insecurity hypothesis. It takes cojones to step out on your own. For some, it’s worth the risk to hide behind someone else’s words and ideas.
It’s also possible that people who plagiarize do not see that stealing intellectual property is a crime. Not a serious one anyway. With the surfeit of blogs, websites and media behemoths ravenous for content, the value of all that intellectual effort becomes degraded. What’s the fuss if another’s work is repurposed without attribution? No harm/no foul, right?
Whatever Dr. Spence’s reasons for his serial stealing, his resignation was the correct outcome. To quote from poet John Donne, “No man is an island.” We’re all connected on this blue planet that seems to be getting smaller and smaller each day. So when you cheat, who are you really cheating?
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