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What’s the easiest way for a university to come up with a good written policy on plagiarism?

You plagiarize someone else’s statement.

Hard to believe, but true.

I first saw the story in the online Chronicle of Higher Education last Thursday, but it’s not available without a subscription, so I couldn’t pass it along. Fortunately, USA Today picked up the story the next day.

Apparently, someone on a committee devising a plagiarism policy for Southern Illinois University decided to take the easy way out — and put forward substantial sections of a policy used by Indiana University. The only difference between the two is that SIU’s definition of plagiarism takes a list of five numbered points from IU’s policy and puts them in paragraph form.

Members of the committee said they couldn’t explain the close similarity and suspected it must be the result of coincidence. The chair, however, said the committee would investigate and give credit where credit is due if it found dependence.

SIU has had unfortunate encounters with plagiarism before. In 2006, the chancellor of SIU’s Carbondale campus (there’s another in Edwardsville) was forced to resign after it was discovered that he’d plagiarized from himself — lifting chunks of a new strategic plan from a similar plan he’d written for another school. The following year, it was discovered that the system’s president had used large sections of unattributed material in his Ph.D. dissertation: they were deemed to be copying “errors and mistakes” rather than plagiarism.

I’d like to believe that the problems at SIU resulted from individual errors rather than reflecting something systemic. The problems certainly shouldn’t reflect poorly on other educators who had nothing to do with it.

Unfortunately, they do. The splatter pattern from an egg in the face affects more than the eggee — and it doesn’t come off easily.

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