IN THE REAL world, which students sometimes (and mistakenly, in our opinion) construe as different from the academy, proof of plagiarism carries a heavy penalty. In the real world, where people are paid for their work, those who pass off another's work as their own often find themselves at the wrong end of a lawsuit.

At Princeton, however, where a young woman with an enviable scholastic record lifted large sections of a Spanish paper from a book, without benefit of quotation marks, it's the university that's being sued -- for libel, slander and damages. A committee of students and faculty found her guilty, recommending that the university withhold her diploma for a year and tell the law school she planned to attend why the action was taken. The student has taken the matter to court, and the court has ordered the committee to meet today to review its recommendations. Her error, she contends, was "technical." It was not her "intent," the student claims to plagiarize or to conceal her source, but she was in a hurry, having only one day in which to write her paper after meeting a deadline for her senior thesis. Moreover, she paid nearly $40,000 for her diploma and, according to her attorneys as quoted in Newsweek, the university cannot take away her property without giving her due process.

We have heard a lot of explanations for taking another's work as one's own, deadline pressure and "writer's block" among them. They are certain to arouse understanding if not sympathy among other writers, most of whom have suffered at one time or another from the acute terror of confronting a large blank page and having nothing to put on it, and all of whom have faced and sometimes failed to meet a deadline. We understand the explanations, and we feel a degree of compassion for those so desperately driven. It is, after all, vastly easier to copy another's words than to produce them yourself, and the results may be a lot better.

We can understand all sorts of actions, but to understand them is not to excuse them, and for an outstanding senior student well past the age of reason to pretend that another's work is her own is, in our opinion, inadmissible. For Princeton to withhold her diploma for a year and to notify the law school to which she had applied seems to us to be not only within the rights of the university but its responsibility as well.