Jerry Barton*, a history professor, is almost a cliché. He arrives for his morning lectures effortlessly but nattily turned out--patches at his elbows, horn-rimmed glasses. A generation ago, he would have smoked a pipe.

Barton has had a wildly successful career, writing a bang-up dissertation that received much praise and a few prizes, and securing tenure by age 40 at an elite New England college. He has gotten there through lots of hard work and a little plagiarism. Not recently, of course--the book that earned him tenure is all his own. But Barton admits that in college, he plagiarized no fewer than six papers.

He didn't plagiarize during graduate school. "The stakes were too high," he says. But he was very ambitious in college, loved history, wanted desperately to get into a good Ph.D. program, and thought he'd have a better shot with straight A's than with the occasional A- or B+ marring his transcript.

So, when in doubt, he plagiarized: For a term paper in a class on early American history, he copied a paper on parades and protests during the Revolutionary era from an unknowing friend who had written it in grad school. For an essay on Chekhov, he tracked down a book no one had checked out of the library in more than 20 years and copied the better part of a chapter. "Actually," he recalls now, "it wasn't a very good book. I improved upon it. Added good transitions, made the thesis statement a little sharper. But that was much more efficient than plowing through all those plays."

"This plagiarism never hurt anybody. The people who originally wrote those papers still got their kudos for doing it."

He copied a paper on Descartes word for word from a paper that a grad-student friend of his had turned in two years before, and he lifted an essay contrasting John Rawls with Isaiah Berlin from his sister. (He swiped it from her filing cabinet after Thanksgiving dinner.)

Not that Barton needed to plagiarize. He's perfectly capable of doing stellar work, as evidenced by his other college A's, his sparkling graduate school record, and his spacious, book-lined office in a college the average American prep schooler can't get into.

Nor would Barton strike most people as immoral, or even amoral. By all accounts, he's faithful to his wife. He doesn't drive when tipsy. He says he hasn't stolen since the time when he was 8 and he fished a couple of silver dollars out of his brother's desk drawer. (Though it's a selective definition of theft that doesn't include ideas and prose.)

"Those things could all hurt someone else," he says. "But this plagiarism never hurt anybody. The people who originally wrote those papers still got their kudos for doing it. I didn't take that away from them." So he hasn't completely done away with moral standards. He simply believes that something is wrong if it does obvious harm to another person; if it doesn't, there's no problem.

One might wonder why a would-be professor, of all people, would copy others' papers. If he didn't enjoy reading and writing enough to crank out a 15-page college essay comparing Stehndal's "The Red and the Black" with Manzoni's "The Betrothed," why did he want to go to graduate school in the first place? "Well," he says, "that is exactly why I plagiarized those papers. It was a stepping-stone. It got me to a place where I was able to do a lot of real intellectual work."

The only thing that gave Barton pause, during his college plagiarism days, was the fear of getting caught. "That would have ruined everything, of course," he says. "Even all the grades I had earned, all the sharp papers I had written, wouldn't have saved me if any of my professors had caught me."

After turning in his plagiarized essays, Barton felt the type of terror most people feel when their lover says, "We need to talk." "Realistically, there was no way they could have found out, since, with one exception, I was copying from unpublished work," he says. "But I dreamed up elaborate scenarios in which my teachers somehow found me out. For a musicology class, I copied large sections from a Princeton friend's senior thesis. I knew there was no way the professor could know that, but I worried that maybe his wife taught at Princeton and had, unknown to me, been my friend's adviser, and my paper would be lying around the professor's house, and she would spot it. I always raced to collect my papers the day the professors said they would have them graded."

When asked if he regrets his behavior, Barton doesn't blush or feign sheepishness. "No. I learned a lot about Revolutionary-era parades and protests," he says. And it's not like I've skidded by my whole life. I haven't plagiarized since college."

Barton admits that his youthful infractions have left their mark on his teaching style. He gives the requisite lecture about plagiarism every fall, explaining to his students that copying someone else's work violates the school's honor code and can result in expulsion. "But I've never had anyone expelled," he says. Except for one repeat offender whom he failed, Barton has "let the other handful of kids I've caught copying other people's papers off with a warning."

He begins to squirm only when asked about his son--will he teach his son not to copy other people's answers on chemistry quizzes? "Do as I say, not as I do," he jokes. Then he pauses and says more seriously: "I wouldn't want Josh to plagiarize because he might get caught, and that could ruin his whole life, and kids are more likely to avoid something if they think they might get caught and if they think there are absolute moral consequences. So, yes, I will teach him it is wrong. But I will level with him and be understanding if he comes home from college with a letter from the dean."

*Names and several identifying details have been changed.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad