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On Plagiarism, again

Just a few quick notes about my current thinking on plagiarism.

I have scholarly friends (writing teachers, obviously) who spend a lot of time thinking about how we writing teachers talk about plagiarism. Some people make plagiarism into a kind of cat-and-mouse game, approaching it with the warning that students shouldn’t plagiarize, or I’ll catch them! This kind of approach still goes on, apparently, though I’ve eschewed it for years.  One of my students reported:

I was fortunate enough to have a teacher in middle school that was super super super strict when it came to plagiarism, she would literally not return papers for months because she was going through them all checking each one very closely for this dishonest act. She would instantly fail you if she seen any type of plagiarism, which worked out in my benefit because I would never want to bring home an ‘F’ to my mother and father, so I never felt the need to do so. I think when kids plagiarize it is somewhat lazy, I mean if you are going to do the work and actually copy and paste someone’s words than you might as well just copy and paste their name in there and give them credit.

I distinctly remember when Jeff Rice, several years ago, wrote a great post about technological approaches to plagiarism, what he called “technogotchas.”  Last year, he wrote even more astutely on the subject. He still disdains the idea of policing for plagiarism, advocating for an ever-more-complex view of what it means to borrow other peoples’ work.

When we look at the conventional “plagiarism” definition, it usually falls into one of three cases, ignorance (not knowing how to cite properly), laziness (not knowing why it matters), or desperation (cheating because the student is desperate for one reason or another).  I try to prevent plagiarism with a healthy inoculation against the first and second causes through classroom discussion of discourse communities and the gift economy of ideas, as well as an attempt at open communication to stave off the third.  I also adhere to the philosophy that unique or particular assignments are much harder to cheat your way through than are generic ones.

Copy THIS. Copy THAT. by Leeks, cc-licensed.

Copy THIS. Copy THAT. by Leeks, cc-licensed.

But more and more, I like to spend time on the bigger questions of why it matters, and I’m reminded of the excellent talk I heard from Sandra Leonard at PCA/ACA last spring.  Leonard argued that the common discussion of copyright violation as a crime undermined the academic discussion of plagiarism.  As students have come to understand copyright through the lens of legality, they come to understand the question of plagiarism not as one of intellectual honesty in a discourse community, but as one of criminality, and their respect for copyright law then shapes their respect (or lack of respect) for citation in academic research.  As I’ve discussed plagiarism with students in the intervening months since I heard Leonard’s talk, I’ve come around to her way of thinking.  Here’s one student writing about plagiarism:

Plagiarism is bad. We all know that. It is ultimately the theft of another person’s ideas. It can mean a failing grade in a class, or worse, criminal charges if you aren’t careful. But obviously, it still happens: sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. I really appreciated this chapter, because it makes clear what it really means to plagiarize.

Several other students used the word crime to describe plagiarism.  This is, for me, a fundamental failing in the way we think about how ideas circulate.

See also: On Plagiarism

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