My Student Plagiarized a Ted Talk

And here’s what I learned as a result

Image by Jonny Lindner from Pixabay

A few weeks ago I listened to a student present a speech almost entirely plagiarized from a Ted Talk.

And not just any Ted Talk, but one of the most popular Ted Talks of all time.

I knew the speech well because for many years I have shown that speech in class to give students an example of what an informative speech that incorporates research might look like.

And now in class I was listening to this same speech presented very smoothly and authoritatively, point by point, and nearly word for word.

Ironically the subject of the speech was lying.

You can’t make up this stuff.

Before having a meeting with the student I downloaded the text of the speech and checked it against his outline. He had replaced one of the speakers examples, for a different one but otherwise the speech from the body of the speech to the end, was taken point by point from the Ted Talk.

I found myself feeling angry as I recognized the speech I had heard hundreds of times before.

Did he imagine he was the only one who saw this Ted Talk?

Why would he plagiarize a speech? He told the class that he worked as some kind of salesperson and gave frequent presentations. From his previous speeches, it was clear he was very comfortable giving presentations. Clearly he had the skills to do his own work.

And this led me to consider some of the reasons why people might plagiarize either knowingly and unknowingly.

People plagiarize because they can and everyone else is doing it.

We live in an age when everyone downloads music, movies and books for free. It’s so easy that people expect to get everything for free. Music, for example, which we used to pay artists for, we now expect to be able to download for free.

If everyone does it, how bad can it be?

People are confused about how to properly attribute their sources

Information online is plentiful, as is the ability to copy anything you find. You have to be careful in doing research to keep track of the source and attribute it properly.

There’s some confusion about how to give credit where credit is due. For example, if you do a search for an image on google, and it says the image may be subject to copyright, how do you find the source to ask for their permission?Same with an infographic.

Is it enough that the website is included on the image or graphic?

And if you can’t find the source, do you not use the image?

No one can honestly say that their ideas are entirely their own.

We all influence one another. Ideas, are by their nature promiscuous. As Mark Twain, in his autobiography said:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

It’s true that all ideas come from other people’s ideas and in this sense it’s very hard to condone off a thought as belonging exclusively to one person and that person alone.

I often fear that I may be inadvertently plagiarizing someone because I absorb ideas from lots of sources and part of my thinking process is integrating those ideas.

I think that’s a good thing. We should recognize the extent to which our ideas are influenced by all those who we encounter.

The ethical problem is when we claim those ideas as our own and don’t acknowledge the source.

As with lying, people are overtly against plagiarism, but in practice endorse it.

This insight about lying comes from Pamela Meyer’s Ted Talk, “How to Spot A Liar.”

Let’s apply this insight to academia, the place where plagiarism is frowned upon.

On one hand, there are clear rules about academic honesty that sternly prohibit plagiarism, when it comes to students plagiarizing.

However, I have heard numerous stories of graduate students, often female graduate students having done original research that is then claimed and published by their thesis “advisors.”

While I was working as a professor I wrote a grant for the department, which my chair offered to walk over to the administrative office, as she was going that way.

Two months later I opened the school newspaper to see a photograph of her accepting the grant award — the same one I had written.

There was no one to complain to. There’s a student code of ethics but for professors with respect to their colleagues and students, apparently, it’s whatever they can get away with.

As long as someone is willing to pay for it, anything can be bought.

There are online factories that sell students term papers for a price.

There are companies and individuals that will help students improve their tests scores, write their college entrance personal essays, and as with the latest scandal, will offer to take the test for them, for a price.

Working in a community college where most students are not wealthy keeps most students honest, if for no other reasons than they can’t afford to pay someone else to do their work.

But that wasn’t enough to keep my student from plagiarizing.

Plagiarism in the “real world,” is widely accepted.

If we are honest, a good portion of our economy these days runs on claiming credit for work that someone else has done — from ghostwriting books, to copywriters who write speeches for CEOs, to social media managers who write status updates on behalf of their clients.

In the past, we have looked to public figures to model ethical standards. But we now have so many examples of corruption it’s hard to know where to look to find agreed upon ethical standards. The examples are too numerous to count, but I will one recent example of a plagiarism controversy involving public figures.

Quite a people noted the similarities in Melania Trump’s 2016 Speech at the Republican National Convention, with a previous speech written by Michelle Obama. In 2018, Melania Trump published a cyberbullying pamphlet “Be Best,” that is remarkably similar to Michelle Obama’s “Be Better” response to Oprah Winfrey’s at the White House Summit on the United State of Women in 2016.

Even if Melania Trump didn’t take her words directly from Michelle Obama, she at the very least was influenced by Michelle Obama’s ideas. And those ideas, in Michelle Obama’s case came from years of study as well as working in communities.

If Melania had come up with such similar ideas, where in her life experiences had they come from?

Back to the situation with my student:

What happened was instructive and made me consider another reason why people plagiarize.

When I met with him, I reviewed the definition of plagiarism. Both of his had the transcript of the Ted Talk in question.

First he argued that he had only used a small portion of the total Ted Talk.

The total talk was eighteen minutes long.

That small portion however, made up ninety percent of his speech.

I explained it would have been one thing if he had used the speech as support for his own ideas, and had a variety of support from other sources. The fact was, he took the structure and the research from the Ted talk and presented it as if it was his.

So he switched to second defense: He did refer to the speech and mention that it was a source, and a lot of other students had failed to sufficiently mention their sources.

True enough, but as I told him, there’s a difference between using a source as support for your thinking and representing someone else’s thinking as your own. The fact that other people didn’t sufficiently credit their sources, is not a justification for him to do so.

“Do you understand the difference?” I asked him. I didn’t want to make him feel bad, but I did want him to understand clearly what he’d done.

“I understand you think it’s plagiarism,” he conceded.

This isn’t about differences in perception or opinion I said.

I pointed to the definition of plagiarism, which according to the dictionary is “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.”

Then I referred him to the body of his speech compared to the transcript of the Ted Talk.

The evidence was clear.

Still, he refused to admit that he’d plagiarized.

Instead he deflected. I was unfairly picking on him.

It’s not an easy thing to be accused of plagiarism, and I understood this deflection was him saving face.

I could have flunked him for the speech. But instead, I requested that he do another speech — this one about plagiarism.

In addition to helping him get clear on what plagiarism was, it would be useful to the rest of the class as well.

A week later he wrote to me saying he felt embarrassed to give a speech on plagiarism.

He wasn’t being singled out. It was on a day when everyone who wanted to, could make up or redo a speech.

I offered him the option to do a speech on music copyright instead, as that also dealt with the ethics of using someone else’s work and claiming it as your own.

The main thing was that he dealt with the ethical issues involved. He agreed.

The day of the speech, he began by announcing that he downloads music, everyone does, and he’s not going to stop doing it.

He said this with a shrug, as he gave three examples of famous cases of music copy infringement. He cites his sources and showed parts of each of the songs that were under dispute.

“Is this a case of copyright infringement?” he asked the class as he presented the example “You decide.”

At no point did he offer any ethical principles that might help us decide the matter one way or the other.

His attitude seemed quite cavalier. Maybe some of the musicians had a complaint but it really had nothing to do with him.

His attitude was stunning. He had entirely refused to deal with the ethics involved.

With plagiarism and now music copyright, it wasn’t a case of him being confused about the issues involved.

It was rather, a complete disinterest in the ethical questions involved and an unwillingness to consider that what he does personally has ethical consequences.

It was as if this student was ethically tone-deaf: He clearly didn’t understand the ethical problems and wasn’t interested in trying to understand what the fuss was about.

Ultimately, he didn’t see this issues as having anything to do with him.

And this attitude, this refusal to consider and weigh the impact of one’s actions on others seems all too familiar.

And this led me to another reason why people plagiarize.

As a culture, we are unwilling to consider the ethical implications of our actions, at least not enough to change our behavior when we believe something unethical is occurring.

Especially if there’s a potential to make money.

When it comes to being paid or the possibility of making money, its whatever the market will bear and those involved can get away with.

Think about the 2008 mortgage crisis. It’s not that people weren’t aware there was a problem, but the people involved were making too much money to stop what they were doing.

Or think about the more recent case of Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos, a company that promised new technology for quick, painless, and inexpensive blood tests. In early March the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Holmes with “massive fraud.

Writer Jean-Louis Gassée asks how Holmes managed to sell a technology to investors that didn’t work.

“With hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into the company, did none of the investors take a quick comparative blood test?”

His answer to this question is that ethically we follow the herd.

“Once Holmes bagged a couple of high-visibility marks, the rest made the easy decision to follow.”

This answer fits with something I learned about last week.

In an interview with Rabbi Debra Kolodny who conducts workshops on Hate Speech, she said that one of the reasons people don’t interrupt hate speech is because they think that someone else will do it.

The more people there are in a situation, the less likely it is for any one person to take responsibility.

So now we have a situation where lying in general, and plagiarism in specific, are widely practiced, and to some extent culturally endorsed by the values of capitalism: If it makes money or promises to make money then it’s justified.

If everyone’s doing it, and if the person doing it has social approval, then it must be right.

A final example: If we think about the technology that infuses how we function day to day, how we work and also how we socialize, we can’t help but consider Facebook.

A technology that aimed to make us more connected has in fact made us more isolated and many argue, has played a key role in undermining democracy.

In a recent article, Mark Zuckerberg and the Tech World Still Do Not Understand Ethics, the writers outline some of the reasons why people, like my student, refuse to consider the ethical consequences of their actions.

When it comes to technology people assume that if it’s new it must be making the world a better place.

This assumption, combined with the ethic of expedience and a desire to make money seem to trump other ethical considerations such as safety, or the impact on human lives.

“This “move fast and break things” ethos is embodied in practices like working toward a minimum viable product (MVP), helping to establish a bias toward cutting corners. In addition, many founders look for CFOs who are “tech trained — that is, people accustomed to a world where time and money wait for no one …”

So thinking about my student, and the cultural tendency not to consider the ethical implications of how and why we do what we do, it feels as if we all are passengers inside a fast-moving vehicle with no driver at the helm.

If it makes money it must be taking us where we want to go.

If it’s a new technology, even one we don’t understand, it must be taking us on the road to progress.

Other people seem to think there’s a driver who knows what they’re doing.

And if there isn’t s driver, someone else will eventually take control and keep us from crashing.

It’s not up to us.

We don’t make the rules.

We just take advantage of the rules, and bend them to the extent we are able to.

Everyone does it.

They can’t all be wrong.

It strikes that in conversations about artificial intelligence and the possibility that robots might replace essential functions that humans once did, we are already seeing this happen, only we are becoming the robots.

The ability to empathize with someone else and consider the ethical consequences of one’s actions are part of what makes us human.

If we outsource ethical considerations about why do what we do, and we give our decision making power to technology, the market or socially influential leaders, are we not well on our way to becoming programmable machines who carry out ends determined by someone else?

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Suzanne LaGrande

Suzanne LaGrande

Writer, artist, host of Disobedient Femmes & The Voice Plays podcasts. Interested in personal transformation & collective liberation. suzannelagrande.com

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