A column in the New York Times discusses the problem of student plagiarism, at a time when 'the number who [believe] that copying from the Web constitutes "serious cheating" is declining'.
"Now we have a whole generation of students who've grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn't seem to have an author," said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. "It's possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take."
And there is more opinion of the same kind in the piece, sort of 'sociology of belief', if you like, seeking to understand why attitudes to academic cheating are more relaxed than they used to be. There's nothing wrong with a sociological perspective on the issue. Better understanding the source of the problem may be of help in trying to address it.
But as I've written before here, a moral-legal approach to the question is equally to the point. Since plagiarism is cheating it should be penalized (once the practice of honest writing has been properly explained) - penalized just like that and no quarter. In the above quote, as well as other things written in the article, two points are run together. One is the sense some students apparently now have that there is material out there that 'doesn't seem to have an author'; or, to put it otherwise, doesn't seem to belong to anyone. The second point, however, is distinct and is the core of what is wrong with plagiarism. This is that, if you simply claim whole chunks of writing, unattributed, as if you are the author of it yourself, you're presenting as a product of your own mind, your own reasoning, your own analytical or rhetorical or whatever capacities, something that... isn't. It's a form of intellectual fraud and alien to the educational process.
To underscore the distinctness of this second point from the first one - in which you're ripping off someone else - simply imagine a case where that isn't so. Edward presents Melanie's words as his own, after Melanie has given him full permission to do this. He gives in, as being his, an essay written by her. It's cheating even though it isn't theft.