Analog Versus Digital Consequences of Plagiarism: Honor and Reputation in the 21st Century

Until very recently, most humans who lived in settlements tended to stay in those settlements: in village or city, people spent their entire existence within the boundaries of at most a day’s walk or ride. Explorers or marauding armies ranged much farther, but life for most people involved tight physical and social boundaries. Privacy was the possession of the rich, if indeed anyone could claim it. Reputation and social standing could fluctuate quickly given the velocity of gossip.

But with increased mobility, we could “start over,” rebuilding our reputations (and characters). If we messed up in high school, we could remake ourselves in college, and if we messed up in college, we could change colleges. We could move to a new neighborhood, new city, switch jobs or careers, reinventing ourselves if possible.

Digital culture really has changed the nature of our decisions: in theory, something we post online while in elementary school follows us for the rest of our lives, preventing a “do-over.” The immediate reverberations a face-to-face encounter once produced often now are delayed and disconnected.

I have focused previously in my writing and workshops on how to approach plagiarism in a positive manner that strengthens students and teachers ( But when we do alert students to negative consequences, what would be the most effective ones to cite?

I suggest that we explore with students the concepts of honor, authority, and reputation. In the 21st century, honor has become the possession of anyone, not just landed males or aristocracy. We understand also that it involves concrete behavior that increases or decreases the “face” or dignity of others.

Lots of interesting research shows that subjects are less likely to cheat (plagiarize?) if small environmental changes are made, for example, by placing a mirror in the room. Likewise, students need a mirror for their digital lives, something that will help them focus on minding their reputations far earlier than other non-digital generations had to. I have a few suggestions.

I have found that providing carefully constructed—even beautiful—course materials to face-to-face students makes them more receptive to caring for their reputations over the course of a semester or year, as though they were extending metaphorically the qualities of those materials to their own lives. When we appear careful in our manner and materials, are students more likely to transfer this care to their daily decisions?

While teaching online courses recently at the University of South Florida, I employed principles from game design in order to create an online environment called The Four Gates that helps students master essay writing: as they reach a new stage of mastery, they are released into a simulated “gate,” each of which is identified with a different chapter of The Book of Five Rings. Students remarked that the course design encouraged dignified behavior between students and teacher as well as between the students themselves. Can online courses be developed in a way that emulates the physical markers of honor and reputation?

Humans across cultures think of honor, dignity, and reputation as nearly tangible things that can be increased or decreased from a limited store.  Suppose I built a brief game that visualizes how plagiarizing and other forms of academic dishonesty affect one’s reputation and authority and thus how a player functions in some suitably defined game space. I already am working on such an idea. What other tools could we use across the lifespan, from elementary school onward, to help students master an honorable version of digital culture?


Young people that are just beginning to build their professional reputation need to be more aware of how much more difficult it is for them to control that reputation in the digital age. I find the discussion of how you used to be able to just move and change jobs and rebuild our reputation an interesting one. It serves really well to highlight just how different this current situation is to one way things have been historically. 

That said you bring up a couple of points that I think are worth exploring further. You questioned if we could develop markers in online courses that mirror physical markers of honor and reputation. The Four Gates concept that you talk about is an interesting one because it creates a metaphor for the student’s success and reputation that is easy for them to understand outside of a classroom. I think that is the key to that type of work. Students need to feel that they are gaining something by responding in an honorable way and giving them some form of progress bar for it allows them to see how they have improved. I also feel that this addresses the question you raised about students taking care outside of the classroom. 

That is where the third question comes into play too. If tools are developed to show students the ways that acting honorably help them even outside of the classroom then they are more likely to take those lessons with them. Once a student understands that plagiarism and acting dishonorably has consequences outside of the classroom they are able to connect those points.

In my mind I imagine a short narrative based game that would take you through a period of a character’s life making questionable or dishonorable decisions. If you took that concept and fleshed it out you would be able to tell stories about how decisions inside and outside the classroom effected someone’s life. Show how a decision made three years earlier cost you a job in the present because your reputation was tarnished.


I like your suggestions.  Publishers of professional and business communication textbooks already have been touting their scenario-based software: students decide how to respond to a business problem or conflict by choosing branches along a decision tree, often represented in an office environment.

But these scenarios are focused on narrow consequences, rather than how actions affect one's character and future authority. Plausible, well-written stories that follow the sequence you suggest would help people visualize what is otherwise vague and abstract.

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