Plagiarism: It's a lot of hard work

Here's an interesting (if flawed) article from Slate on plagiarism. The article by Meghan O'Rourke quotes from a new study on the phenomenon, The Little Book of Plagiarism by law professor and Judge Richard A. Posner.

O'Rourke seems to conclude from Posner and other sources that the reason we (Americans versus anyone else, who presumably either don't care or care for different reasons about plagiarism) have issues with copycats is their compromised work ethic:

The cribbed student essay—which Posner views as a particularly insidious form of plagiarism, committed by approximately one-third of high-school and college students—isn't an academic crime because a C student has tried to pass himself as a Matthew Arnold in the making. It's an academic crime because the student who buys his thesis from a paper mill has shirked the labor that his fellow students actually perform.

Um, no, sorry: It bugs me that anyone, C student or Honor Roll star, would try to pass himself off as a Matthew Arnold in the making. Yes, the fact that the plagiarizer hasn't done the work is certainly partly why I consider it unethical, but what about the fact that the person is trying to portray a thought or idea as his own when, in fact, it is not?

The argument that shirking is more of an issue than fraud seems to me to say more about how our workaholic society is shaping our ethics than about authors who copy other author's sentences. Are we really so impoverished of ideas that we believe original thinking is an impossibility, and that plagiarism is inevitable (therefore, crediting someone else for their work becomes more key than the fact that the idea is ripped off)? Do we so worship blood and sweat that we value the measurement of these sacred liquids we pour into an activity versus the quality or originality of the work itself? Maybe Ian McEwan spent a lot of time finding the exact sentences he copied in Atonement: Shouldn't that count?

And, are the ubiquitous "we" really obsessed with the act of plagiarism itself, or are we just pissed off about the fact that we got duped?


Anonymous said...

Seems like people are just thinking too much about what constitutes plagiarism. Sometimes, it's like we want to make excuses for plagiarism. I don't think the issue comes down to ideas, labor or cutting corners; if that was the case, Dan Brown is guilty, even though he didn't crib any sentences for "The Da Vinci Code." Now I haven't read either "Atonement" or "No Time for Romance," but I've seen the passages cited, and seems to me that McEwan plagiarized Lucilla Andrews, even if he did sort of give her credit. But he didn't credit her for those specific sentences. Now if I'd written a paper in college and got caught trying to pass off certain passages as my own, I don't think the university would've let me keep going to school. That's the standard I hold McEwan to. No one disputes that he copied from her book, but people are just making excuses for him.

I seem to have read somewhere that this isn't the first time he's been accused of plagiarism. Hmm.

Anonymous said...

I found a peach of a reference in a textbook today. The book's by Minzberg who combines being a maverick with being a guru on management and who is highly respected even if more po-faced authors find his humour and humanity rather frightening. Subversive is the word we're looking for, I think.

The reference said "An author* gives us guidance..." The asterisked footnote said "Reference unaccountably lost, I apologise to the author for this". The entertaining thing is that he obviously noted the page numbers of the original text an includes them next to the sections that he quotes.

Surely the reason for objecting to plagiarism which involves stealing work rather than ideas, eg ripping entire essays off the internet, is that what counts is the learning process you go through to do the work. The assignment is a mechanism for making you go through that learning process. It is also a way of assessing what you got out of it. If it is not your paper, then it is not your learning process. In the long run of course, you are only short-changing yourself. ("You" meaning a generic person "one" or "on" or "man" not actually you, of course).

But I thought I'd share the Minzberg reference with you.


Rebecca H. said...

I agree with you LK -- as a teacher who receives plagiarized papers sometimes, I feel like it's a personal insult (I shouldn't take it personally, but it's hard not to). The student has lied to me.