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History and the Disciplining of Plagiarism
I begin this essay with a story. It comes from a meeting of the Board of Editors of the American Historical Review (AHR) during my years as editor of the journal. The board, which consists of twelve prominent historians from around the country, sets policy for the journal. Like other editors of peer-reviewed journals, I wanted to speed up the publication process and thought I could do so by sending article manuscripts to reviewers electronically. When I proposed doing that, I expected resistance but not the kind I got. I thought I would have to deal with technophobia; instead I met the fear of plagiarism. Board members worried that if readers received manuscripts electronically, they would not be able to resist the temptation to lift information and ideas from them; conversely, they thought that established customary practices inhibited readers from plagiarizing print manuscripts. My proposal gave them an occasion to express their anxieties about the disciplining of plagiarism. As a result I had to scuttle the plan.
The AHR editorial board response suggests that plagiarism is understood by many academics to be a growing problem aided and abetted by technological change, declining ethical standards, and dwindling faith in disciplinary controls. As the story suggests, these worries have combined to make uncertainty a dominant disciplinary response to plagiarism. And so as my contribution to this volume, I want to use experiences in the trenches of struggles over plagiarism as a history journal editor to discuss three prime sources of that uncertainty. I will focus on professional, not student, writing because I think it most directly raises the disciplining challenges surfacing in current debates about plagiarism (Grossberg).
Changing definitions are surely one source of uncertainty about the disciplining of plagiarism. Plagiarism has never been and is not now a stable term—it has and will continue to change. But there have been some consistent elements in our understanding and use of the concept. Historians, for example, have had a quite well developed definition of plagiarism with two critical components: organizational and experiential.
The most influential organizational definition of plagiarism has been promulgated by the major society of professional historians in the United States, the American Historical Association (AHA). Created in 1884, the AHA adopted a formal definition of plagiarism in 1987. As is often the case, a bitterly contested case identified a problem that compelled the search for a solution. In this instance, a tenure battle at Texas Tech University ex-posed the lack of clear standards for judging plagiarism among professional historians. Historian Jayme Sokolow stood accused of appropriating the work of another historian, Stephen Nissenbaum, in a book manuscript about early-nineteenth-century sexual and health reformers. Though the university denied Sokolow’s bid for tenure, the difficulties that Nissenbaum and others faced in pursuing charges of plagiarism led the AHA to craft an official definition (Mallon 144–93; Weiner 195–200)
The resulting definition contains five central tenets. First, and most basically, it defined plagiarism as appropriating “the exact wording of another author without attribution.” Second, it broadened the ethical misdeed to include the appropriation without proper attribution of another person’s concepts, theories, rhetorical strategies, and interpretations. Third, the AHA definition declared plagiarism to be the failure to acknowledge the work of another, regardless of intent or of monetary or other form of gain. Fourth, the definition also recognized that the appropriation of another’s words or ideas without proper attribution constituted an ethical and professional but not a legal infraction unless it slid into copyright infringement. Finally, the AHA declared enforcement to be a collective responsibility:
All historians share responsibility for maintenance of the highest standards of intellectual integrity. When appraising manuscripts for publication, reviewing books, or evaluating peers for placement, promotion, and tenure, scholars must evaluate the honesty and reliability with which the historian uses primary and secondary source materials. Scholarship Page 161flourishes in an atmosphere of openness and candor, which should include the scrutiny and discussion of academic deception. (American Historical Association)
The AHA definition has become the most authoritative formal statement on plagiarism in my discipline.
I think the AHA definition of plagiarism is very compelling and useful. However, its meaning comes not simply from the wording in the statement itself but also from a complementary set of shared experiential definitions of plagiarism. Despite disclaimers like those in the AHA definition, the language and labels of criminal violation permeate all discussions of plagiarism and define it in most people’s minds. It is considered theft, the act of stealing another’s words or ideas and therefore one of the most serious of all academic crimes. It thus incurs a proportionate condemnation, activating what, in another context, sociolegal scholar Mona Lynch calls the “discourse of disgust” (530). By that she means words that aim to shame, ostracize, and condemn violators with labels like thief and fraud. Such shaming epithets pervade cases of plagiarism. Equally critical to an experiential definition of plagiarism is an understanding of it as professional victimization. Anger and a sense of powerlessness boil up when we see our ideas and research appropriated by someone else and presented as his own without acknowledging his source. I have tried to capture this feeling by suggesting that like the characters in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, our books and ar-ticles constitute our intellectual personas in very fundamental ways. They are elemental parts of our self-definition as scholars and thus we feel their misappropriation as a personal violation (Grossberg, “Plagiarism,” 1334).
As a journal editor, I also realized something of the Dreyfus-like experience that faces those charged with plagiarism. Like the French Jew falsely accused of treason by a virulently anti-Semitic military, those who think that they have been unfairly indicted with stealing someone else’s words or ideas suffer an acute sense of anguish and unfairness that is also a critical part of the experiential definition of plagiarism. As I have learned in messages from those in the plagiarism dock, they fear dishonor and a blighted career and seek a means of vindication and redemption. These fears are well founded, as widely published author and federal judge Richard Posner makes clear: “The label ‘plagiarist’ can ruin a writer, destroy a scholarly career, blast a politician’s chances for election, and cause the expulsion of a student from a college or university.” Thus the ways we experience plagiarism Page 162create a complicated sense of victimization and vulnerability that are also critical to definitions of plagiarism.
Historian’s definitions of plagiarism express beliefs and practices common to the humanities. They reveal the power of and dependence on the written word in our disciplines and thus our commensurate fear about its misappropriation. Yet, to return to my opening story, the existence of clear organizational and experiential definitions did not quell the concerns of AHR board members. It did not, in part, because my colleagues understood quite clearly that neither component of the definition has been static or stable. And the sense that we are in a period of changing definitions is one of the key sources of uncertainty today about plagiarism. For instance, though the basic elements of the AHA definition have remained in place for almost two decades, it has been revised a number of times as controversial cases exposed it limitations. Changes were made in 1990, 1993, 1995, and 2002. Further revisions seem inevitable, and that knowledge breeds uncertainty.
We are obviously in a time of heightened concern about plagiarism. Indeed, this volume and the conference that spawned it are examples of our current apprehension about the misappropriation of words and ideas. As a historian, my response to the emergence of such widespread anxiety about a particular problem is to ask questions about periodization: What is distinctive about this moment of time that makes us so concerned about plagiarism?
One answer, perhaps tautologically, is simply to say that right now plagiarism is a very visible problem (“Professor Copycat”). There has been a series of outing of historian plagiarists, most notably Doris Kearns Goodwin and the late Stephen Ambrose. Panels on the subject have been staged at meetings of several historical associations. Three books by historians on plagiarism and related scandals have been published over the last couple of years; their titles are evocative: Ron Robin, Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases That Shook the Academy; Peter Charles Hoffer, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud; American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin; and Jon Weiner, Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower. The editor of the History News Network, an online newsletter, reported that he had received so many tips about purported plagiarism that he only investigates well-known scholars. Another Page 163historian created a website, “Famous Plagiarists,” that included a special section on history and a rogues’ gallery of famous historian plagiarists. Finally, when Public Broadcasting Service’s Newshour host Jim Lehrer decided to write a murder mystery about plagiarism, of course he peopled it with historians, in this case biographers of the nation’s founders (Robin; Hoffer, Past Imperfect; Weiner; “Famous Plagiarists”; Lehrer).
Another reason for our present concern with plagiarism is a feeling that it may be on the increase. For example, Daniel Callahan has written about growth of what he terms a cheating culture, presenting a rise in plagiarism as a prime illustration (see his book The Cheating Culture and the associated website). Others, though, argue that the significant change has been in our ability to detect plagiarism. The debate reminds me of disputes in my own realm of scholarship, family history and policy, about whether or not child abuse has increased, decreased, or stayed the same over time. In both cases, it is likely impossible to find a definitive answer. And thus I think the more compelling question to ask is why are we so concerned with plagiarism right now?
As my AHR editorial board story suggests, technology has played a critical role in making plagiarism so important to us today. Computers and the Internet have vastly increased the amount of information we can obtain and created new skills in cutting and pasting that heighten our sense of vulnerability to plagiarism. Blogs, personal websites, library repositories, pre-print services, and search engines like Google have altered scholarship in ways that may well challenge a shared meaning of plagiarism, especially by encouraging the idea of information as common property available for use by all of us (Robin 55–56). At the same time, technology has created powerful new devices for tracking down plagiarism. Students have been the initial target of these software tools; Turnitin.com, for example, is now mandatory in many secondary schools. But technological policing is being applied to professionals as well. Indeed the creator of another program, Copyguard, contends that it would have caught the disputed passages in the books by Goodwin and Ambrose (Ralli). In fact a Google search did catch historian Brian Le Beau, then dean of arts and sciences at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, after he posted a speech on a dean’s listserve. A reader looking for a particular phrase discovered that Le Beau had appropriated the work of African-American scholar Cornel West without proper attribution (Bartlett, “Missouri Dean”; Carnevale). So one of the reasons for the distinctiveness of this moment is that technology has increased our sense of both vulnerability and accountability.Page 164
Another source of our present concern about plagiarism is the impact of the law on all discussions of the misappropriation of words and ideas. Though plagiarism is not a legal violation, libel certainly is a legal matter (Stearns). Fear of libel suits and other forms of litigation hovers over the entire subject of plagiarism because the calamitous consequences of calling someone a plagiarist can send disputants to lawyers and perhaps courtrooms. The University of Dayton, to cite one example, successfully defended its decision to fire a faculty member for plagiarism; but winning the lawsuit cost the school almost two hundred thousand dollars in legal fees and administrative time (Glenn). Incidents like this intimidate scholars, universities, professional organizations, and publishers. As a result, every discussion about the issue turns to questions about the legal consequences of filing or defending charges of plagiarism.
I have tried to capture the ordering power of law by drawing on a metaphor crafted by the famous nineteenth-century French chronicler of American mores, Alexis de Tocqueville: the shadow of the law. He used it to describe the power of the formal agencies of law to influence the ideas and actions of people even if they never enter a law office or courtroom. The law creates a sense of expectations, entitlement, and penalties that govern us as we bargain in its shadow. Specific accusations of plagiarism pull accused, accuser, and others like editors, publishers, and universities into this shaded space. In terms of plagiarism, it is right now a frightening place where fears of litigation stifle needed disciplinary debate and action and thus condition our response not only to the act of misappropriation itself but also to technological changes that increase our ability to identify plagiarism (Grossberg, Judgment, 2–3, 34–35, 238–39; Grossberg, “Plagiarism,” 1338).
Uncertainty about the nature and meaning of authorship is yet another reason for the distinctiveness of this moment. Studies in the history of the book and scholarship in literary criticism have compelled us to reexamine our foundational belief in the author as an original thinker. This has also led us to reconsider whether an author has or should have a property claim to words, ideas, and evidence clashes, and also whether such claims clash with an equally vital commitment to the free flow of information. Plagiarism emerged in early modern Europe from the confluence of technological, intellectual, and legal change that promoted exclusive and exclusionary authorial rights. In our time, postmodern claims about the cultural contingency of all social constructions have fostered uncertainty about the link between textual construction and ownership that challenge that Page 165understanding of plagiarism. Writing theorist Susan H. McLeod warns us, “We ignore the recent, local cultural history of copyright and plagiarism at our peril. The notion of stealing ideas or words is not only modern, it is also profoundly Western. Students from Middle Eastern, Asian, and African cultures are baffled by the notion that one can ‘own’ ideas” (Swearingen 21). Students from this country may be baffled as well. The culture of media sharing promoted by the Internet may well be teaching students an idea of information as an “intellectual commons” open to all uses that is at odds with the beliefs of most of the faculty and most definitions of plagiarism, including the one I cited from the AHA (Creative Commons).
These uncertainties about the property claims of authors are reinforced in a discipline like mine by an understanding of scholarship not simply as the product of individual insight but as accumulating and cumulative knowledge that is shared within and between generations; what historian William Cronon calls “a continuum of intellectual indebtedness” (Hoffer, “Reflections”). Thus New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell derides what he calls plagiarism fundamentalists, who, he says, “encourage us to pretend that these chains of influence and evolution do not exist and that a writer’s words have a virgin birth and should have an eternal life” (48). Complaints like his suggest that property rights claims to scholarship based on assertions of authorial originality ignore the interdependence of scholars and undermine scholarly communication in history and all disciplines. Such contentions complicate our understanding of plagiarism. They make us worry that a restrictive definition of plagiarism and activist plagiarism policing will stifle needed disciplinary debates.
I think the market is the final major source of our plagiarism anxieties. Again my discipline is a revealing example in a couple of ways. First, persistent worries about declining monograph sales have increased pressure for academics and university presses to abandon the narrow monograph for broader analyses that appeal to larger groups of readers. The effort to write for a more inclusive audience is a very useful development in many ways, but the resulting rise in synthetic writing also heightens the need to rely on the work of others. And a greater use of secondary sources raises questions about plagiarism and the legitimate limits of paraphrasing. Just how much tinkering turns someone else’s words and ideas into your own is a particularly gray area in any effort to define and police plagiarism, as both Goodwin and Ambrose discovered. It challenges all of those who write synthetic work (Hoffer, Past Imperfect, 180–201). Second, and I think more consequential, has been the impact of an expanding market for popular history Page 166evident in the large audiences for Ken Burns’s documentaries and the huge readership of David McCullough’s best-selling books. Successes like theirs have led to the rise of a cadre of historical popularizers, historians who write about the past as a popular, public, and often very profitable enterprise with sales not only to readers but to book-of-the-month clubs, cable channel producers, and Hollywood moviemakers. Most popularizers are not formal academics; they are, however, the prize catches in plagiarism hunts because of their notoriety (Robin 7, 31–32).
Historical popularizing is not a new endeavor, though it may well be garnering greater influence and rewards than in the past. What is new is an attempt to carve out a special ethical place for popularizers in the discipline. Judge Posner argued for such a policy during a panel discussion at the 2003 annual meeting of the American Historical Association. He contended that since the job of a historian writing for a popular audience is the dissemination of ideas by telling a good yarn rather than developing a discipline through original research, plagiarism by popularizers is simply not as significant an ethical violation as it is when done by an academic historian. Posner contended that plagiarism by popularizers simply did less serious damage to the discipline than the misappropriation of words and ideas by academic historians. Thus, he concluded, the penalties should be less as well (Postel). Posner’s assertion is reinforced by policies at journals like the one I edited. The AHR’s definition of reviewable books excluded many of those published by popularizers because it gave pride of place to works of original scholarship. Consequently, none of Ambrose’s recent books have been reviewed in the AHR. Such a policy exempts his books and many others from the disciplining that comes in scholarly book reviews (“Book Reviewing”). Posner’s proposal and the AHR policy suggest the existence of differential standards for plagiarism in history writing that is another source of the uncertainty of this moment.
What to Do?
Crafting appropriate responses to our heightened concern about plagiarism has become a major challenge for all of those involved in academic writing. It requires individuals and organizations willing to tackle the problem and able to construct procedures that can effectively resolve the varied contemporary problems raised by plagiarism. Limited success in both endeavors is a final source of the uncertainty at this moment.
Until recently, the AHA had a settled procedure for resolving plagiarism Page 167accusations. It was one of the few professional organizations willing to police itself in this manner. In 1974 the AHA established a Professional Division and charged it with monitoring ethical issues in the discipline. The committee was staffed by representatives elected by the association’s members. In 1987 the AHA published its first “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct”; it defined various forms of professional misconduct—including plagiarism—and charged the Professional Division with enforcing the new guidelines. The division had an adjudication procedure to police historians’ ethical misdeeds: aggrieved individuals could file charges against another historian and the division would then notify the accused of the charge, investigate the accusation, and inform the parties of its finding. Notification of a finding of misconduct was the primary sanction. The entire process was confidential, though the AHA asserted a discretionary power to publicize a judgment if the situation warranted. The process operated in Tocqueville’s shadow of the law, consistently dominated by concerns about lawsuits.
Questions about its effectiveness and legitimacy plagued the AHA disciplining process from the start. The most searching and publicized complaints emerged out of an investigation of plagiarism charges against historian Stephen B. Oates filed in 1990. Oates had written widely read biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. He denied the accusation and won the support of many of his fellow historians. He also refused to participate in the investigation. The process dragged on for over two years and in the end members of the Professional Division found that Oates had been careless in his use of other scholars’ work, but they did not issue a specific finding of plagiarism. Oates challenged the legitimacy of the AHA procedure, which he likened to the Star Chamber, and threatened to sue the organization. He argued that since he was not a member of the AHA it had no jurisdiction over him; and he rejected the association’s definition of plagiarism as overly broad. The battle continued into the new century and exposed many of the investigatory and enforcement problems of the system (Mallon 189–93; Hoffer, Past Imperfect, 135–39; Robin 36–45).
Critics argued that the rule of confidentiality underscored the timidity and ineffectiveness of the AHA’s efforts to police professional misconduct. Because it refused to publicize findings of misconduct, no one but the parties involved knew if a historian had been accused or found guilty of plagiarizing. Ohio State historian Judy Tzu-Chun Wu learned that lesson in 2002 when she charged Wichita State historian Benson Tong with plagiarism. She later reported that the Professional Division agreed with her that Page 168Tong has appropriated words and ideas from her dissertation and published them as his own in a book. Nevertheless, since only she and Tong knew the result, she resorted to self-policing for redress. Wu informed his department and publisher of the finding. Though Tong lost his bid for tenure, he found another job and his book remains in print. Following its procedures, the AHA refused to say whether it had even handled the case (Bartlett and Smallwood).
Incidents like the Oates and Wu cases generated uncertainties about the AHA process. Critics repeatedly argued that the procedure offered individuals a very limited remedy and, because of the commitment to confidentiality, the decisions rarely had a significant impact on the larger discipline or served to educate historians about plagiarism or other forms of misconduct. On the other hand, they acknowledged, the AHA remained one of the few professional associations that even attempted to police the ethics of its members. And its procedure did offer aggrieved individuals a place to seek redress. Nevertheless, the concerns mounted and undermined the system. The AHA abandoned it in the fall of 2003. AHA staff members and elected officials concluded that the process had “proven to be ineffective for responding to misconduct in the historical profession.” In its place they proposed that the association should take the lead in educating the public and historians about “plagiarism, falsification of evidence, and other violations of scholarly integrity” (“AHA Announces”).
The demise of AHA’s adjudication of professional misconduct charges illustrates the difficulties of devising effective ways to police plagiarism and thus is itself another source of the uncertainties of this moment. Now historians, like most academics, have no formally recognized mechanism for resolving charges of plagiarism. Three alternatives have been suggested; each is problematic in its own fashion (Glenn).
As in most disciplines, history journals are now the front line of plagiarism struggles. Few are prepared to assume this responsibility; most have no established guidelines or procedures for dealing with claims by authors that a book or an article contains misappropriated words or ideas. I made that discovery at the AHR. The customary practice had been to refer accusers to the AHA and thus rely on its process to police plagiarism. When that system collapsed, the journal staff decided to revise the AHR book review guidelines and accept the responsibility for publishing charges of plagiarism. The new guidelines relied on the AHA definition of plagiarism and used the publication of parallel passages from the disputed texts as the prime method of exposure (Grossberg, “Plagiarism,” 1338–39). A few other Page 169history journals also created new policies; most of these have adopted an approach much like the adjudicatory system formerly used by the AHA (Journal of the Gilded Age; Society for French Historical Studies). Even in these cases, however, the role of journals has raised as many questions as it has resolved: How can journals justify the power to investigate charges of plagiarism? What responsibility do journals have to notify the publishers of plagiarized books or other journals when plagiarism charges are filed? Should journals share their findings with each other? With history departments and organizations and with publishers? What is the liability of a journal, publisher, and individual editor in plagiarism cases? These and many other questions suggest the uncertainties of making journals the primary plagiarism police (Kahl).
The other prime candidate to handle accusations of plagiarism is the university. In this case, an aggrieved individual could lodge a charge of plagiarism against a faculty member with the accused academic’s home institution. The appeal of university responsibility for policing plagiarism is that these institutions have established procedures for dealing with faculty misconduct, the power to compel participation and information gathering, the resources to support such investigations, and the ability to apply effective sanctions. Some universities have assumed this responsibility. For instance, in 2003 the United States Naval Academy investigated charges of plagiarism leveled against historian Brian VanDeMark. A committee substantiated accusations that his book on the development of the atomic bomb, Pandora’s Keeper: Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb, contained plagiarized material. The Naval Academy stripped him of tenure, demoted him from associate to assistant professor, and cut his salary (Bartlett, “Naval Academy”; Steinberg; HNN Staff). Yet there are not many examples of similar actions by other universities. And thus turning to the university to resolve the problem of plagiarism also raises uncertainties. As former University of Nebraska vice chancellor Richard C. Edwards declared: “I find that all of the possible candidates for policing plagiarism (among faculty)—the ‘own’ university of someone accused of plagiarism, the professional journals, or the professional societies—are deeply flawed and likely to be very timid, with a different politics playing out in each. The own university is likely to have many personal connections and other pressures that may work to limit the appetite for calling it plagiarism.”
Finally, another solution has emerged in the last few years. Historian Ron Robin has championed the policing of professional misconduct by the new interpretive communities being constructed through the mediums like the Page 170Internet and reviewing mechanisms like those on Amazon.com. He argues that since the professional association, scholarly journal, and university have been unable to enforce ethical standards, we must rely on such communities and on public exposure as the most effective way to control plagiarism:
To be sure, public scandals may occur more frequently, but they do not necessarily represent either disciplinary turmoil or the wholesale jettisoning of standards. In a somewhat counterintuitive manner, the modern-day version of vox populi is decidedly averse to revisionism and intolerant of deviancy . . . the participation of amateur scholars, graduate students, and laypersons in Internet forums and other modes of discussion suggest widespread rejection of those who seek to experiment with the canon, retool scholarly guidelines, or transgress conventional rules or regulation. The public scandal is, then, border control by other means. (Robin 232)
However, it is not clear if public monitoring can discipline professional misconduct, including plagiarism, any more effectively than the alternatives I have mentioned. For example, historian Peter Hoffer surveyed reviews of popular history books on Amazon.com and found that accusations of misconduct against authors like Ambrose and Goodwin made little difference to ordinary readers. Their books continued to sell quite well despite the charges. He concluded that for many people reading is entertainment, not a critical intellectual act that should be policed for violations like plagiarism (Hoffer, Past Imperfect, 2005–7). Even so, communal monitoring is developing and warrants our attention.
I want to conclude by returning to the opposition of the AHR Board of Editors to digital manuscript reviews for fear of plagiarism. We cannot follow that example and respond to our fears about plagiarism with distrust and resistance to change. Instead I think we have to seize this moment of intense concern to craft new understandings of plagiarism and new ways to discipline the misappropriation of other people’s words and ideas. And that can only be done by raising these issues at every opportunity and in every relevant forum from journal pages and graduate seminars to conference panels and Internet discussion forums.
“AHA Announces Changes in Efforts Relating to Professional Misconduct.” Press release, May 3, 2003. http://www.historians.org/press/PR_Adjudication.htm, consulted July 4, 2007.Page 171
American Historical Association. “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct.” Adopted January 6, 2005. http://www.historians.org/pubs/Free/ProfessionalStandards.cfm#Plagiarism, consulted July 4, 2007.
Bartlett, Thomas.”Missouri Dean Appears to Have Plagiarized a Speech by Cornel West.” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 24, 2005. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v51/i42/42a01301.htm, consulted July 4, 2007.
Bartlett, Thomas.”Naval Academy Demotes Professor Accused of Plagiarism in a Book on the A-Bomb.” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 7, 2003. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v50/i11/11a01201.htm, consulted July 4, 2007.
Bartlett, Thomas, and Scott Smallwood. “Four Academic Plagiarists You’ve Never Heard Of: How Many More Are Out There?” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 17, 2004. http://chronicle.com/free/v51/i17/17a00802.htm, consulted July 4, 2007.
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Callahan, Daniel. The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. Orlando: Harcourt, 2004.
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Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. “SHGAPE/JGAPE Plagiarism Policy.” December 11, 2004 . http://www.jgape.org/plagiarism.php, consulted July 4, 2007.Page 172
Kahl, Caryln E. “Plagiarism Policies and Historical Journals.” Editing History (Conference of Historical Journals) 21, no. 2 (2005): 1–3.
Lehrer, Jim. The Franklin Affair. New York: Random House, 2005.
Lynch, Mona. “Pedophiles and Cyber-Predators as Contaminating Forces: The Language of Disgust, Pollution, and Boundary Invasions in Federal Debates on Sex Offender Legislation.” Law and Social Inquiry 27 (2002): 529–66.
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Posner, Richard. “On Plagiarism: In the Wake of Recent Scandals Some Distinctions Are in Order.” Atlantic Monthly, April 2002. http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2002/04/posner.htm, consulted July 4, 2007.
Postel, Danny. “In Wake of Controversies, Historians Debate Causes and Prevalence of Plagiarism.” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 6, 2003. http://chronicle.com/daily/2003/01/2003010603n.htm, consulted July 4, 2007.
“Professor Copycat.” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 17, 2004. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v51/i17/17a00801.htm, consulted July 4, 2007.
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Robin, Ron. Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases That Shook the Academy. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.
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Steinberg, Jacques. “New Book Includes Passages from Others.” New York Times, May 31, 2003, B9.
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Weiner, Jon. Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower. New York: New Press, 2005.
Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement: The Costs of Confusion
In August 2005, a translator sent a question to “The Ethicist” at the New York Times—aka Randy Cohen. She had discovered that a Hungarian encyclopedia article that she had been hired to translate for an American reference work, and that pretended to be new research, had in fact been “copied in large part from a lexicon published in 1929.” She supposed there were copyright issues, and asked whether she should report the discovery to her American employer. The Ethicist advised that she should. “Intellectual integrity can be maintained only if members of your community report transgressions,” he said. “Without this self-policing, the field cannot sustain its own values.” What interests me here is the failure on the part of both translator and journalist to distinguish clearly between copyright infringement and plagiarism. The translator is mistaken in framing her question around copyright. An article from 1929 might still fall under copyright, depending on when its author died—but getting permission to publish is hardly likely to cause much problem. The real issues for the translator’s editors are these: who is to be paid for the work, and does the work being delivered represent up-to-date research? Cohen’s focus on problems of academic practice in his reply is therefore quite appropriate. In the next paragraph, he does note that “the copyright question is a legal one (with a potential pitfall for your boss), and hence beyond my purview.” But although he makes a distinction between two realms of transgression, Cohen misses an opportunity to clarify the nature of the distinction. He doesn’t even name the problem “plagiarism.”
Insofar as there are two realms of transgression referred to in Cohen’s discussion, one (unnamed) is governed by ethical principles and community values, and the other (copyright) by legal rules. In this implicit claim, Page 174Cohen shares a widespread hunch about the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement: that plagiarism is a matter of ethics, and copyright is a matter of law. But despite the popularity of this formulation, it is not in fact the nature of the distinction. As a falsification of research methodology, plagiarism is arguably more dangerous as a threat to the stability of knowledge verification systems than as an ethical transgression (see Rose). Furthermore, plagiarism includes unintentional acts, even if these tend not to be punished so severely, so on these grounds as well, ethics cannot be said to be at its core. On the legal side, it is true that in principle the law may be distinguished from ethical judgments. However, public discussions and legal rulings concerning copyright are heavily freighted with ethical ballast—just like those concerning other crimes. Thus ethics infuse both plagiarism and copyright discourses, and cannot be used as a fundamental criterion for distinguishing between them.
Another common idea about the distinction between the two transgressions, also evoked by Cohen’s brief musings, is that plagiarism is a matter of etiquette or community norms, and copyright is a matter of law. This distinction has some merit. Whereas copyright is a crime against the individual (the source), plagiarism is widely understood as a crime against the group (the audience), and in its threat to social relations it is rather like a flaunting of etiquette. Seen as a breach of sincerity (or of the collectively defended illusion of sincerity), plagiarism is felt to insult and embarrass others, and is censured rather performatively as a ritual of social control.
However, the etiquette distinction neglects the fact that not only the identity of the “victim” but the nature of each transgressive act is quite different. Plagiarism and copyright infringement do not describe the same array of actions. The crucial and almost always unrecognized distinction between the two infractions is that plagiarism is use or reuse of words or ideas without acknowledgment, whereas copyright infringement is use or re-use of words or ideas without permission. Plagiarism and copyright infringement are transgressions against two distinct but overlapping economies of knowledge: citation systems and market systems.
Citation systems are multiple and often informal. They include “reputation” economies in the arts and marketing; blogging, “playlist,” and hypertext practices; and protocols for tracing circulation of stories and other oral genres. In these economies, being identified as a source bestows cultural capital, and perhaps, eventually, increased income, but does not result in direct payment. Stopping to ask permission would run completely counter to the principles of these economies: the goal of all participants is Page 175free, cited circulation. Of course citation economies do not operate “purely” or in isolation: they intersect in various ways with market economies of knowledge, regulated through intellectual property law. But their dynamism is based on a certain independence and distinctness.
Academic citation is one of the most formalized citation systems. While its logic may be self-evident to its practitioners, this article argues that academics ought to devote more effort to understanding and displaying its vitality, capacity, and governance mechanisms, and demonstrating its points of distinction from the copyright system. It is in their interest as researchers to do so, because various windows in copyright law that allow academic research to proceed—provisions such as limited term, fair use (or fair dealing in Canada and other countries), the first-sale doctrine, and so on—are closed or closing rapidly. In the United States, the 1998 lengthening of copyright term and other restrictions of the 2001 Digital Millennium Copyright Act have impeded the operation of citation economies. Canada has not yet ratified the 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization “Internet treaties,” but it is poised to follow in U.S. footsteps. A solid grasp of the principles behind citation may help to protect established research practices. But it is also in academics’ interest as citizens and teachers to clarify the distinction. As I will argue, defenses of academic citation may draw attention to the dynamism and importance of other citational economies, and this in turn may help students to understand the logic and advantages of academic citation. Strategies for preventing plagiarism could be framed in more positive terms.
Copyright law is only one of the threats to academic citation practice. Challenged by universities’ desire to generate income from intellectual property licensing, this system also appears to be under threat from students’ easy access to plagiarizable sources on the Internet. These situations may invite a certain nostalgia for days of yore, but at the same time, studies of science research and publishing have critiqued the academic citation system’s ideological underpinnings and practical mechanics (McSherry; Galison and Biagoli), and composition and literature scholars have taken issue with its promotion of inaccurate or unproductive models of authorship (e.g., Howard; Lunsford). I fully acknowledge the power of these critiques. In fact I am inspired by Corynne McSherry’s paraphrase of the contention of Jacques Derrida and Bill Readings that “academics must take responsibility for enacting a community of thought that, because it does not pretend to be either disinterested or secluded from society, will no longer work to legitimate particular inquiries, polices, and property claims” Page 176(19). In this spirit, I think it urgently necessary to emphasize distinctions between citation and copyright systems, both despite and because of their intersections and internal contradictions. Thus while I am taken by Lisa Maruca’s claim that “the increased vigilance over source use that results because of and as part of the plagiarism panic may be actually increasing the domain of copyright” (10), I would focus on developing models for educating students about citation that do not play into corporate copyright. And whereas Debora Halbert sees the citation system and the copyright system as equally obsessed with individual genius and property (111), I would suggest that citation acts as a powerful reminder of the collaborative and collective nature of knowledge.
As I have pointed out, the essential distinction between citation and copyright is that proper citation practice turns on acknowledgment, whereas proper copyright practice turns on permission. It is a tenet of academic freedom that one does not ask permission before critiquing the work of another. As awkward as it may be to say it in our present intense environment of antipiracy rhetoric, unauthorized copying is what we are all about in the university—with the larger goal of creating new ideas and arguments from the fabric of those already existing. It is understood in academic circles that once a work has been published, its pieces are available for free use. Free, that is, in the sense of free speech, not free beer, in the terms of the open-source software people: one has to pay to buy a book or a subscription, but one does not have to ask permission to read or to quote. In copyright law, this is called “fair use,” or in Canada “fair dealing”—that is, the provision that allows us to quote without permission. It is seen as something of an exception in copyright law. But in citation cultures, this freedom is not an exception: it is the foundation. The copyright system and citation systems are based on entirely different foundations. They are both concerned with policing inappropriate reproduction, but their definition of inappropriate is very different. As Laurie Stearns puts it, “Attribution of authorship is the highly personal connection between author and work, but the interest that copyright protects is the impersonal connection between owner and property” (12).
Academics are especially well positioned to understand these distinctions because citation is the currency of our research. By explaining to students and university administrators that unauthorized, cited use of others’ work is essential to our mode of knowledge production, university writing teachers can contribute to a larger citizens’ movement to design and clarify nonproperty economies of knowledge, a movement that includes open-source Page 177software, the Creative Commons license, defense of the public domain, and all manner of documentation and education initiatives. And this in turn may make it easier to discourage students from plagiarizing. Consider these words of Rosemary Coombe:
Too much of what we now protect under the guise of authorship is not creativity or innovation, but merely investment. Too much of the world’s creativity is unrecognized, and when it is recognized, our global intellectual property regimes provide rights without recognizing the responsibilities that many peoples in the world hold—responsibilities to others, to their ancestors, to future generations, and to the plants, animals, and spirits that occupy and animate the worlds they inhabit. Can authorship be revitalized to encompass this wider field of human obligation and energy? Can the exercise of intellectual property rights . . . be limited and shaped to address a larger range of social objectives? (1173)
In her allusion to the struggles of indigenous peoples, Coombe is evoking a realm of struggle and discussion far removed from the university classroom. But the gist of her words would not be startling to most university students, who along with their generation as a whole and many other citizens as well feel that copyright law in its current and emerging form is morally bankrupt and economically unjust. Consumers are urged to “respect” the rights of others, when those others—especially large corporations—do not seem to practice respect, or even recognize the existence of interests other than their own.
In this context, teachers and students can explore the idea that respect and submission are not identical—surely a proposition attractive to adolescents and young adults. In copyright, at least as corporate lobbyists see it, there is only one way to show respect: asking permission. But in a citation system, one shows respect when one finds another’s work useful and acknowledges its author—even if one goes on to criticize, adapt, augment, or even dismiss it. I explain to students that for individual participants, the academic citation system has a relatively low bureaucracy and cost overhead. It is much more easily compatible with freedom of expression than copyright. It is a way of building prestige and networking; it doesn’t cost anything; and it can help in democratizing communication and making authority more transparent. Placing academic citation in the context of other citation economies in which students participate can also be productive. Internet links are one endless chain of footnotes, only handier. Blogs Page 178invite their readers to trace back through their sources like any good academic historian. Some students will already know about Creative Commons, a circulation system based on citation (all of its licenses require attribution); students might be assigned to choose an appropriate Creative Commons license for a piece of work, and explain their choice. Citation economies may be hip, but they are ancient. Janet Giltrow discusses citation compellingly in terms of the norms of conversation (33–36). In ordinary conversation, it is often wise to cite the source of a joke or anecdote or notable fact. Why? Because it is normal to cite: it is part of the social fabric and habitual modes of speech. Because sometimes it bolsters social status to declare a prestigious source. Or because it helps your listener to evaluate your information: if you don’t say where you got it, they may ask. Through discussing conversational and online practices, students may understand better the logic of academic citation.
What happens if we don’t make the distinction? I have space here to present one cautionary case study. Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, posts two documents online dictating copyright rules to graduate students submitting theses. SFU tells such students that they must obtain permission for use of images or more than five hundred words or 2 percent of the work of others (Simpson, “Copyright Workshop,” 2). When “earmarking graphics for later use, [students should] immediately send for copyright permission” (1); it advises asking them to imagine themselves arguing before a judge in a lawsuit as they decide the scope of their permission-seeking efforts (3). In these and other sections, the SFU documents present erroneous interpretations of Canadian copyright law, which in fact offers a number of “users’ rights,” including fair dealing, a provision recently substantially bolstered by the Supreme Court in the CCH Canadian Ltd. v. Law Society of Upper Canada case. But for the purposes of the present discussion, it is most important to note the massive change to established academic practice represented in these SFU rules. In ignoring fair dealing and other users’ rights, SFU is allowing its students far less room to maneuver than Canadian law permits, burdening them with the difficult, time-consuming, sometimes expensive or impossible, and often unnecessary task of negotiating permission.
There are two connections here to citation and plagiarism. First, the most obvious: SFU is handing over to the copyright system various regulatory functions that could be handled, and normally are handled, by the citation system. Students are advised that asking permission to quote the work of others will produce “enhancement of your reputation,” and assist Page 179in “opening up relationships with originators,” “establishing personal acceptance in the community of scholars,” and “extending your career/job network” (5). In bold print, we read the following: “It cannot be over-emphasized that ‘used by permission of . . .’ appearing in captions and footnotes of a thesis or project report greatly enhances the reputation of both the author of the current work and originators of borrowed work” (5). Here, the authorizing and networking functions of citation have been transferred to the copyright system, at the cost of academic freedom for the student, who now must grovel for permission where she previously only had to footnote with grace.
The second connection to citation is more insidious. Simon Fraser’s guidelines represent not only an importation of copyright thinking, but an unwitting export of some expectations from citation practice. In the academic citation system, it is expected that all sources, no matter how old, will be cited—ideas, facts, expressions, arguments—with the tiny exception of “common knowledge.” The copyright system, given its “fair use” or “fair dealing” provisions, limited copyright term, focus on “expressions” and not facts or ideas, and other user-rights mechanisms, simply does not require permission for all the acts that require citation in the citation system. Designed to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts,” as the U.S. Constitution puts it, copyright needs windows of unauthorized use as much as it needs permission requirements. As I noted earlier, many forces have been closing or trying to close these windows, or telling people that they are closed—or that they never existed. One reason that academics may not see the windows, it seems to me, is that they don’t have counterparts in the citation system. If “total citation” is expected, “total permission” may be expected too. SFU’s interpretation of the law makes more sense than it should to students and professors because of the confusion between citation and copyright principles.
Simon Fraser’s policies, though thankfully not typical according to my surveys so far, represent a useful warning. Often at the request of confused faculty and students, university and college administrators are developing more and more finely grained interpretations of copyright law. And yet these policies have a double purpose: they aim to protect the institution from litigation, and may only secondarily defend academic freedom and modes of knowledge production. My contention here is that copyright’s intrusion into everyday academic life is facilitated by the absence of a robust understanding of the academic citation system. It is crucial for academics and students to understand that permission is not part of the citation Page 180system—otherwise they will not see what they are giving away in this increasingly copyrighteous world. Of course, we all operate in the market as well, as purchasers and writers of books and other media, and here copyright regulates our exchanges. I am not questioning the right of copyright owners to control republication of substantial parts of their work. But even in the world of copyright, we have a right to repeat people’s words in order to hold them accountable, bring them into dialogue, or use them as a springboard.
In all countries around the world, citizens’ rights to use materials they purchase or to make their own contributions to culture are eroded by creeping digital rights management and its extra carapace of copyright law. With analog technologies, citizens could lend, borrow, collage, and give away cultural materials—books, pages, clippings, records. Although digital technologies have the potential to increase these recirculation abilities, in fact we are seeing them reduced. Standing up for user rights such as fair use or fair dealing, then, has repercussions outside the world of writers and teachers, to the world of private use, where citizens’ abilities to incorporate small pieces of cultural materials into their relationships and lives is being commodified and controlled to a whole new extent. It is crucial that the principle of some degree of free use of materials under copyright be articulated as a public good—not just, as corporate copyright lobbyists insist, the accident of primitive technologies now improved upon. In defining the citation system, we are helping to animate user rights often presented as “loopholes” to be “plugged.” Just as apparently useless wetlands may be key to maintaining a healthy environment, copyright “loopholes” are microclimates that foster creativity, innovation, and democracy. Happily, as teachers and researchers and writers, academics know this well; it is merely a matter of getting the message out, and happily once again, we have in our students an audience at hand.
1. For the classic explanation, see “Free Software Definition.”
2. Other differences between the systems exist. In general, the citation system covers more ground than the copyright system. There is no fixed term for “citation protection”: you have to cite a source no matter how many centuries old, whereas you only have to ask for permission through seventy years after the death of the author (in the United States), or fifty years after (in Canada). You have to cite ideas and facts, but you don’t need copyright clearance for them. The only exception in academic citation is “common knowledge,” a much tinier window than fair use or Page 181fair dealing. One is supposed to cite short sequences of words that one could use without permission as “fair use” or “fair dealing.” And a purchased essay is plagiarism, but not copyright infringement because it is contractually assigned to the student customer.
3. For example, see the Free Software Foundation (http://www.fsf.org), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org), the Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org/index.php), www.chillingeffects.org, and www.creativecommons.org . In Canada, http://www.digital-copyright.ca and http://forumonpublicdomain.ca, www.cippic.ca, and www.michaelgeist.ca embody and document efforts toward public interest copyright advocacy.
4. No Canadian statute or case law sets specific quantity limits on fair dealing; instead, CCH offers a multipart test featuring assessments of the purpose, character, and amount of the dealing, the nature of the work, available alternatives, and the effect of the dealing on the work (at par. 53). CCH pronounces that “the fair dealing exception, like other exceptions in the Copyright Act, is a user’s right. In order to maintain the proper balance between the rights of a copyright owner and users’ interests, it must not be interpreted restrictively” (at par. 48). Especially pertinent to the SFU rules, CCH suggests that judges look to “custom or practice in a particular trade or industry” (at par. 55) in adjudicating fair dealing, and it raises the possibility that fair dealing with an entire image may be possible (at par. 56). It is nothing short of astonishing that few universities in Canada have harkened to this landmark case (see Geist).
5. I certainly do not doubt the sincerity of Penny Simpson, the SFU thesis librarian and the author of the two documents, who seeks to save students from becoming “involuntary cannon fodder” (e-mail, February 20, 2006). However, her belief that the “rights perspective” is a “rather defiant, rather adolescent approach” (e-mail, February 15, 2006) compared to the maturity offered by her restrictive interpretation of the law is troubling, to say the least. Students, it should surely be acknowledged, own their own copyright, and the decisions in this realm should ultimately rest with them.
Buranen, Lise, and Alice M. Roy, eds. Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
CCH Canadian Ltd. v. Law Society of Upper Canada. SCC 13 CanLII. Supreme Court of Canada. 2004. www.canlii.org/ca/cas/scc/2004/2004scc13.html, consulted July 9, 2007.
Cohen, Randy. “Translating Copycat.” New York Times, August 14, 2005, late ed., sec. 6, p. 18.
Coombe, Rosemary J. “Fear, Hope, and Longing for the Future of Authorship and a Revitalized Public Domain in Global Regimes of Intellectual Property.” DePaul Law Review 52 (Summer 2003): 1171–91.
“The Free Software Definition.” http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html, consulted July 5, 2007.Page 182
Galison, Peter, and Mario Biagoli, eds. Scientific Authorship: Credit and Intellectual Property in Science. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Geist, Michael. “Education Summit Shouldn’t Be Only about Money.” Toronto Star, August 29, 2005. http://www.michaelgeist.ca/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=940, consulted December 28, 2006.
Giltrow, Janet. Academic Writing. 3rd ed. Peterborough: Broadview, 2002.
Halbert, Debora. “Poaching and Plagiarizing: Property, Plagiarism, and Feminist Futures.” In Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World, ed. Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy, 111–20. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Howard, Rebecca Moore. “The New Abolitionism Comes to Plagiarism.” In Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World, ed. Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy, 87–98. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Lunsford, Andrea. “Foreword: Who Owns Language?” In Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World, ed. Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy, ix–xii. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Maruca, Lisa. “The Plagiarism Panic: Digital Policing in the New Intellectual Property Regime.” Presented at the AHRB Copyright Research Network, Conference on New Directions in Copyright, June 30, 2004. http://www.copyright.bbk.ac.uk/contents/publications/conferences/2004/lmaruca.pdf, consulted August 11, 2005.
McSherry, Corynne. Who Owns Academic Work? Battling for Control of Intellectual Property. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Rose, Shirley K. “The Role of Scholarly Citations in Disciplinary Economics.” In Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World, ed. Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy, 241–49. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Simpson, Penny. “Working within Copyright Requirements: How Do You Decide?” Guidelines for thesis students, Simon Fraser University, 2003. http://www.lib.sfu.ca/researchhelp/writing/thesesregulations/WorkingWithinCopyright.pdf, consulted December 28, 2005.
Simpson, Penny. “Copyright Workshop.” Simon Fraser University Library, 2004. http://www.lib.sfu.ca/researchhelp/writing/thesesregulations/WorkshopCopyright.pdf, consulted December 28, 2005.
Stearns, Laurie. “Copy Wrong: Plagiarism, Process, Property, and the Law.” In Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World, ed. Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy, 5–18. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Plagiarism, a Turnitin Trial, and an Experience of Cultural Disorientation
In October 2003, all faculty at Massey University, a research university in New Zealand, were invited to join a university-wide trial of Turnitin.com, a plagiarism detection system being considered for widespread use to combat a perceived “plagiarism epidemic.” The university framed the Turnitin trial as an investigation into issues of academic integrity and a step in strengthening academic misconduct procedures, with no reference to plagiarism as an issue of academic writing. This is not, perhaps, surprising since rhetoric and composition is an emerging discipline in New Zealand and is not yet fully established as part of the curriculum. As the only full-time faculty member employed at this time to teach academic writing at the university, I joined the trial, hoping to bring a different perspective on the issue.
The purpose of this essay is to consider the value of Turnitin primarily from the context of reflecting, as a writing teacher, on what the trial taught me about writing, about my role as a writing teacher, about students and learning, and on the gaps that exist in our understanding of and relationship with one another in the student-teacher relationship. To deepen my reflection, I have used a form of reflective practice established by Donald Schön and developed by the British school of action research (see, for example, Whitehead and McNiff). This reflective paradigm, as described by Richard Winter, Alyson Buck, and Paula Sobiechowska, “requires more than observation. It requires us to engage in a process of introspection leading to self-clarification” (186). This essay summarizes the process of observation and self-clarification I engaged in as part of the university trial.
The university trial involved ten faculty members across a range of disciplines. My part of the trial took place in a thirteen-week communication in science course that is compulsory for all freshman science students. The course is taught through a combination of lectures and tutorials and is fully internally assessed. Demographically, the class is unusually homogeneous for a New Zealand context, with an even gender split and very few ESL students (predominantly Asian, but with some Maori speakers); 90 percent of the class are recent school leavers.
I wanted to start with an understanding of my students’ knowledge of what constituted plagiarism. My perception, based on teaching experience, was that students entered university unprepared to use academic sources in their writing. However, attitudes of others within the university challenged my perception. I was unprepared for the level of anger expressed by some colleagues joining the Turnitin trial. Many of these faculty, particularly those working in fields with large numbers of ESL students, animatedly discussed the “plagiarism epidemic” (although there are no studies on rates of plagiarism in New Zealand universities) and expressed pleasure, almost jubilation, that these graceless students would be found and punished. Such a perspective appeared to be supported, though reinterpreted, by an article written by a student in the student newspaper entitled “George Bush Cheats so Why Can’t I?” In this piece, Jess Cameron suggests that the code of behavior established by political and business leaders in recent years means that “an unstable foundation of morals regarding cheating and plagiarism for ‘Gen X’ is set” (16). Claiming that plagiarism is a result of cynicism, and laughing at claims of “unintentional plagiarism,” she challenges so-called liberal attitudes and calls for a harder line on plagiarism, which she describes as devaluing her own educational achievement.
So were my perceptions wrong? To investigate whether students understood what plagiarism is, I conducted a survey based on Julio Soto and Elizabeth McGee’s study, modified to meet a New Zealand context. Student responses were analyzed using the Statistical Analysis System. The results showed a discrepancy between students’ initial confidence and subsequent ability to answer the specific questions. A majority of students (69 percent) rated their understanding of plagiarism as either good or very good. Their answers to the more specific questions, however, showed that their confidence was misplaced (table 1). Although most students could correctly answer simple questions about plagiarism (92 percent correctly identified Page 185that including copied text without a citation is plagiarism), they had difficulty with the more complex questions and showed particular confusion over paraphrasing and the distinctions between correct formatting for paraphrasing and quoting. Only 12 percent of students correctly identified that copied material needs to be formatted correctly as well as referenced with a citation. Of those students who felt their understanding of plagiarism was good, only 11 percent answered this question correctly, and only 19 percent of those who said their understanding of plagiarism was very good.
This first-year class, then, was insufficiently prepared to use secondary sources with confidence. They initially overestimated their skills and showed that, while they understood the broad terms, they had insufficient knowledge of the distinctions between paraphrasing and quoting, and of how to acknowledge sources. This confirmed my perception that New Zealand students do not understand the complexities of using secondary sources and what constitutes plagiarism and that education on these matters is imperative.
Turnitin.com is an international website that checks all submitted papers against its ever-growing body of previously submitted papers, as Table 1
|Perception of Understandinga||Overall Class
|Including copied text from a paper or digital source without a citation in an assignment is plagiarism||100||98||85||50||92|
|Including copied text from a paper or digital source with a proper citation in an assignment is plagiarism||19||11||12||0||12|
|Including copied text from a paper or digital source within quotation marks with a proper citation in an assignment is not plagiarism||89||80||71||38||77|
|Including a quote without a citation in an assignment is plagiarism||100||88||76||50||85|
|Proper paraphrasing involves summarizing, synthesizing, and citing read information in my own words||58||61||38||37||53|
Assignments for both cohorts were processed through Turnitin and the individual reports sorted into four categories: no plagiarism, minor plagiarism (defined as less than six sentences of consecutive or nonconsecutive copied material with no form of in-text citation, or quotations treated as paraphrases, i.e., quoted with an in-text citation), moderate plagiarism (six to eight sentences of consecutive or nonconsecutive copied material with no form of in-text citation), and major plagiarism (nine sentences or more of consecutive or nonconsecutive copied material with no form of in-text citation). Results are detailed in table 2.
Because we did not measure plagiarism rates prior to 2004, we cannot state whether student plagiarism rates decreased due to the use of Turnitin or the educational package—or, indeed, whether rates had changed at all. While other faculty within the trial reported that they believed there were decreased rates of plagiarism as a result of the Turnitin trial, there are no quantitative data to confirm this. However, in my own case, the results suggest Page 187that the individual conferences had a substantial impact on the rate of plagiarism detected, effectively halving it across all categories.
Two more specific findings also emerged from these results following an analysis of the conference review sheets in the second part of the project. Students who experience problems with the less severe forms of plagiarism may be exhibiting errors in the academic writing process, rather than misunderstanding how to use conventions. Every student in the 2005 cohort identified as having plagiarism problems had attended an individual conference prior to submission of the assignment. However, all but one had attended with an incomplete assignment draft and had been identified as not having completed in-line citations. Adjuncts discussed the issue with these students, who promised to insert in-line citations. These facts suggest an error not of understanding but of technique. Second, the conference appeared to have a substantial impact on the outcomes for ESL students. Four of the students classified as having major plagiarism problems in 2004 were ESL students, but none of the students in 2005 showing plagiarism problems of any kind were ESL students. Instead, ESL students were more likely to overuse quotations. It is interesting that the introduction of the conference, rather than the introduction of an educational strategy and detection device, proved to be the decisive factor in almost eliminating plagiarism in our (admitted small) sample of ESL students. We were unable to establish, through analysis of the assignments and conference sheets, why the conference was successful in addressing plagiarism among ESL students. Further research is needed.
Reflections of a Writing Teacher
After so many years of working with academic writing, I find it disconcerting that I still misunderstand how students process information and how Table 2
|Major||5 (3.5)||1 (0.6)|
|Moderate||9 (6.3)||5 (2.9)|
|Minor||9 (6.3)||5 (2.9)|
|Total||23 (16.1)||11 (6.4)|
A second key aspect of my reflection has been the impact of the conference on plagiarism. Building a relationship with a reliable mentor may dramatically affect a student’s experience of her or his position within the academic community. Jonathan Hall suggests that plagiarism may be partly a result of the depersonalization of tertiary education:
The modern university is big, bustling and impersonal. Students often feel like teachers don’t know their names or care about their problems. . . . The plagiarism crisis is not something that dropped out of the sky without our complicity or our participation. . . . If, as the traditional consensus has it, the plagiarist has become cynical, it may be partly because he or she believes we are cynical too. (13)
Individual contact with an adjunct who is available to discuss the student’s assignment and personal confusions may be a key difference between the classes of 2004 and 2005. And perhaps it is not surprising that this has an impact on ESL students, who are doubly disenfranchised by language and culture. As a teacher I find this outcome heartening—it suggests a simple and easily implemented solution that we can explain clearly to colleagues and that can easily become part of a broader strategy on plagiarism.
But what of Turnitin.com? Researchers in the field and individual faculty who have used Turnitin tend to have very clear views one way or another: either it is “the best thing we have ever had to combat plagiarism” (personal communication) or it is a reprehensible tool that undermines students’ rights, supports the commodification of education, and creates a Page 189spirit of distrust and fear (McKeever; Marsh). After my involvement in the trial, I initially held an ambivalent view. In both 2004 and 2005 we found a student who had copied the work of another student from a different tutorial group. Since their work was marked by different tutors, under ordinary circumstances they would not have been caught. As teachers we like to think we can spot plagiarism without additional tools, but this trial convinced me otherwise.
The deterrent effect of plagiarism detection systems remains anecdotal until empirical studies support this claim. Nevertheless, I do think there is evidence that Turnitin can be used as an educational tool. This point is well articulated by another faculty member involved with the trial:
I use Turnitin as an alerting system, but I don’t rely on its judgement because I feel the nature of copying, and particularly the level of intent, need case-by-case discerning. During this particular trial, Turnitin helped me to identify one group whose work contained two chunks of material copied from a website without attribution. I don’t think I would have picked it up without Turnitin, as it was integrated quite seamlessly. However, my feeling upon reading the context in which the material had been used (to provide background and company profile to a case study) was that it was not deliberate plagiarism but rather a misunderstanding about the best way to provide such background and profile.
I showed the students the Turnitin report, discussed correct referencing requirements with them, and had them explain to me why what they had done could be problematic. I never accused them of plagiarism. . . . However I made very clear to them that if they did this kind of thing again, they could risk being accused of plagiarism, and the penalties were severe. I then had them resubmit the work, and this time it was not only correctly attributed, but they had seen how to put the background they needed into their own words and make it work for their argument. . . . I was really pleased with this outcome. I had the feeling that the students would not copy again, (a) because they knew it could be easily detected (and I think there was a clear deterrent effect on the whole class simply because of the visibility of plagiarism issues due to our in-class discussions of Turnitin and the trial) and (b) because they had worked through the issue of making source materials work for them instead of work against them.
They were happy, and I was happy, and having an independent report like Turnitin helped clarify what was needed and enabled us to have an objective discussion without the students feeling that I, Page 190personally, was judging them or accusing them of anything. I think having Turnitin to refer to made the students much less defensive towards me than I have previously experienced when having to deal with plagiarism problems I have detected myself. (Personal communication, October 6, 2004)
This is an example of Turnitin used with subtlety and skill, and would, on its own, incline me toward encouraging the use of Turnitin.com. If Turn-itin could be used by teachers committed to teaching academic writing skills, who could (and would) sensitively read the reports, and who understood the distinction between fraud and incorrect or inadequate use of sources, and if this tool was used in conjunction with an effective educational package that addressed process and voice and personal conferences with tutors, then we might make a strong case for Turnitin.
However, there are a lot of subordinate clauses here. We cannot assume that Turnitin will only be used by such instructors—given the level of anger and anxiety around plagiarism, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is more likely to be used by those concerned solely with detection and punishment. In such hands, Turnitin becomes a blunt instrument to accuse those struggling to grasp a complex intellectual skill of moral failure—with huge repercussions for those students.
Just as important, in considering Turnitin, are issues of trust and respect. Plagiarism has been characterized as a breakdown in the student-teacher relationship—a student, in plagiarizing, snaps the relationship of trust and respect between herself and her instructor (though the causes of this breach may, of course, be complex). One perspective on Turnitin is that its use constitutes a breaking of that trust relationship by the instructor. If we treat all students as potential cheats, how can they approach us with confidence? A focus on detection and punishment combined with a tool that suggests an instructor’s fundamental lack of confidence cannot be conducive to effective learning. Can the detection capabilities of a system such as Turnitin compensate for such a breach in the educative relationship?
So what shifted my ambivalence? Cynthia Hoogland develops Donald Schön’s idea that stories are fundamental to the reflective process. She suggests that “stories conjoin emotions and intellect. . . . they are what head-talk becomes when it is joined to the body, or what ideas are fused to lived experience” (216). So let me end with a conceit, a narrative of something I experienced at the Sweetland Writing Center’s 2005 Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism conference:Page 191
The trip to the Michigan conference was my first extended visit to the United States. I arrived in Ann Arbor in a cab from Detroit, tired after the long-haul trip, and suddenly aware of an anxious thought: people tip in the United States. I had never tipped in my life—what should I do? The only person I could ask was the cab driver. He said 20 percent was compulsory. Wasn’t that rather a lot, I asked. No, ma’am, he said, quite normal. So, I paid the 20 percent and asked the clerk in the hotel lobby whether 20 percent was a compulsory tip. She was not impressed.
Later that day, I headed out for a meal. Before I left, I asked the hotel clerk to explain the rules of tipping. “It’s simple,” she said. “You just tip 15 percent for good service in a place where you’re served.” “Like a restaurant?” I said. Yes. “What about McDonald’s?” No. OK, I thought, slightly more complex than it appears.
As it turned out, over the next few days, tipping became a matter of outlandish proportions for me. Sitting in a Starbucks café I would think, “Is this the equivalent of a restaurant or McDonald’s?” Then there was the matter of what “good service” meant. Did it mean “normal, to-be-expected kind of service,” or did it mean “exceptionally helpful and charming kind of service”? Did you tip 15 percent for normal and 20 or more for exceptional? Or 10 percent for normal and 15 percent for exceptional? And what about shops?
The hotel clerk became a vital source of information, greeting me at the end of each day with the wry, amused smile of the native and, “Now, how was the situation today, Professor?”
Some days, finishing a meal at the end of a long day, I would feel so confused that I would shrug my shoulders and walk out without tipping. Other times I just tipped the coins in my wallet (how many?—didn’t care) into the jar in a form of mindless overcompensation. Some days, maybe, I got it right.
It is probably not necessary for me to spell out the elements of this extended metaphor, but I will mention just a few. First, the rules in both instances appear to be simple but are surprisingly complex, and implementation of the principles requires extensive cultural experience and the exercise of judgment arising from that experience. Second, to those who work within the cultural context, the rules appear to be clear and the complexities of usage almost invisible. Only the novices flounder and therefore see the issue as significant.
But there is a poignant difference between the two situations. When I failed to come to terms with the complexities of the situation, when I walked away without tipping, there were no repercussions. Despite this, Page 192I found the situation confusing and confidence-sapping (I’m used to understanding the basic social rules of modern living—how come I couldn’t do this simple thing?). Had I known that moral censure, personal and family shame, and failure to achieve lifelong dreams might ensue from a single error in grasping these culturally determined practices, then the stress would have been considerably higher. I wanted to be able to tip—it wasn’t that I didn’t care or didn’t try. But I sometimes failed out of frustration at my inability to grasp the complexities. If we had added to the situation a device that would unerringly detect every error I made, I would probably have taken the safe route (McDonald’s every day?) or tipped excessively at every possible moment. Anything else would have been too difficult.
Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: A Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Writing was a valuable professional experience for me. But nothing at the conference taught me so much about students’ experiences of learning to use secondary sources in their writing as did the practical experience of learning to tip. I realize that the idea expressed by this conceit is neither original nor revolutionary; I know that a cornerstone of our pedagogy is the idea that learning academic writing is a form of enculturation (Howard; Price). Although I knew this concept intellectually, I had never felt it; I’d never experienced the dilemma from the inside. Through this episode I experienced the plagiarizing student’s cultural disorientation.
A significant person in the story is the hotel clerk. At times she was mystified by my confusion but always willing to unravel for me what was second nature to her. Had she been harried and cynical (“Foreigners can never understand the most basic issues”), and judged with the power and inclination to punish my errors, then I would never have learned the basics of this cultural practice. In reversing the role I customarily play, I saw again the attributes of an effective teacher—patience, lightheartedness, interest, a willingness to explore new ideas or revisit old ones, a constant courteousness and respect—and a willingness to laugh at mistakes.
Massey University has made the decision to continue and extend the use of Turnitin.com, and a role has emerged for me in talking to faculty about relevant research and providing a context of educative support. Recently, three tertiary institutions in our city have come together to research a multistrategy approach to teaching information literacy and secondary source usage, and to develop learning tools that may be used widely across Page 193tertiary institutions. If we cannot prevent our institutions from using detection systems, then we must become involved in how they use them, and work to provide an educational context to mitigate their effects.
Plagiarism is a complex, multifaceted term that encompasses quite differently motivated behavior. This study has produced some clear results regarding the effect of conferences on plagiarism rates of all students and ESL students in particular. Although Turnitin has potential as an educational tool, we cannot, given the present climate of antagonism regarding plagiarism, have confidence in its being used in this way unless we become involved in how the institution approaches its use. A potentially punitive and insensitive detection tool is unlikely to encourage learning, and the power of detection does not compensate for the breaking of the pedagogical relationship between student and teacher. If Turnitin is here to stay, then as writing teachers we have a task ahead of us.
Thank you to Malcolm Rees, Bruce MacKay, and the participants in the Turnitin trial, particularly Elspeth Tilley and John Walker.
Cameron, Jess. “George Bush Cheats so Why Can’t I?” Chaff 70, no. 18 (2004): 16.
Carroll, Jude. A Handbook for Deterring Plagiarism in Higher Education. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, 2002.
Hall, Jonathan. “Plagiarism across the Curriculum: How Academic Communities Can Meet the Challenge of the Undocumented Writer.” Across the Disciplines: Academic Perspectives on Language, Learning, and Academic Writing, 2005. http://wac.colostate.edu/atd/articles/hall2005.cfm, consulted August 30, 2005.
Hoogland, Cynthia. Cuba Journal: Language and Writing. Windsor, ON: Black Moss Press, 2003.
Howard, Rebecca Moore. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Stamford, CT: Ablex, 1999.
Johnson, Andrew and Rosemary Clerehan. “A Rheme of One’s Own: How ‘Original’ Do We Expect Students to Be?” Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice 2, no. 3a (2005): 37–47.
Larkham, P. J., and S. Manns. “Plagiarism and Its Treatment in Higher Education.” Journal of Further and Higher Education 26, no. 4 (2002): 341–49.
Macdonald, Ranald, and Jude Carroll. “Plagiarism—a Complex Issue Requiring a Holistic Institutional Approach.” Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 31, no. 2 (2006): 233–45.
Marsh, Bill. “Turnitin.com and the Scriptural Enterprise of Plagiarism Detection.” Computers and Composition 21, no. 4 (2004): 427–38.Page 194
McKeever, Lucy. “Online Plagiarism Detection Services—Saviour or Scourge?” Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 31, no. 2 (2006): 155–66.
Price, Margaret. “Beyond ‘Gotcha!’: Situating Plagiarism in Policy and Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication 54, no. 1 (2002): 88–114.
Schön, Donald. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. London: Arena, 1991.
Soto, Julio G., and Elizabeth McGee. “Plagiarism Avoidance.” Journal of College Science Teaching 33, no. 7 (2004): 42–48.
Whitehead, Jack, and Jean McNiff. Action Research: Living Theory. London: Sage, 2005.
Winter, Richard, Alyson Buck, and Paula Sobiechowska. Professional Experience and the Investigative Imagination: The Art of Reflective Writing. London: Routledge, 1999.
Academic Plagiarism and the Limits of Theft
When students plagiarize, are they “stealing”? Or are they merely demonstrating their lack of engagement with “the academic community”? This essay traces one case of plagiarism from its inception in student writing to its resolution in administrative discipline. The student was brought before the Committee on Standards, a quasi-juridical board charged with determining the “guilt” or “innocence” of the student, and with suggesting appropriate discipline. Throughout the process, all parties—the student, professor, deans, and faculty-based disciplinary committee—held different views of what had occurred and what was at stake. Was plagiarism to be viewed primarily as a theft, as a breach of community norms, as a betrayal of the ethical foundation of the teacher-student relationship, or perhaps as a disciplinary misunderstanding?
Educators, it seems, make sense of student plagiarism in two ways. Some argue that students don’t know how to cite sources or make “proper” use of texts; others assume students know full well what is expected of them, and that when they plagiarize, they cheat. The first approach sees plagiarism as a symptom of ignorance, a condition curable with education. The second approach sees plagiarism as simple fraud, an act sharing semantic space with cribbing, lying, and the stealing of test questions. Rebecca Moore Howard (“Plagiarism”), expanding the pedagogical position, has argued that plagiarism is a scare word, and that we should instead view it as one of a wide range of borderline textual practices that function as signs of social transition; students plagiarize, from this perspective, because they have not mastered the norms of scholarly writing and therefore do not see themselves as full participants in that community of writers. Despite such admonitions, however, most teachers assume that students do understand academic norms, but they simply choose not to recognize or act on them.Page 196
I am sympathetic to the argument that “plagiarism” is a product of socioliterary transition; I agree that if students felt more engaged, more participatory, in their scholarship and writing, they would be far less likely to plagiarize. But strangely, that argument doesn’t make sense to my students, who say, almost in unison, that plagiarism is “taking the words of others,” that it is “a kind of stealing,” and that it is “bad.” Admittedly, when I have actually found students doing what I would consider “plagiarizing,” they frequently claim ignorance. Aware in the abstract, ignorant in the breech; makes sense to me.
I say that with some cynicism, of course. Plagiarism, my students say, is “bad,” but more importantly it “isn’t worth it,” or it is “for cowards.” They tell me that plagiarism is “stealing,” yet they also tell me that they routinely, and illegally, download music. I question their claims about the “moral” wrongness of plagiarism, and I have concluded that my students are giving me what they think I want to hear—a legalistic doctrine that defines plagiarism as “stealing.”
My students do know that plagiarism is regarded as transgressive by the academic community; they also know a great deal about the details of academic norms—that paraphrase and websites need citation, that quotes must be exact, that even ideas must be referenced; they know that the dominant model for plagiarism is not cooperation or transitional textuality, but theft. But for all they do know, many of them don’t believe. I think there is good reason for this. As Stuart Green argues, plagiarism fits well into the legal model of theft, so long as it is recognized that the “property” that is stolen is not the plagiarized language itself, but the credit due the author. That is, plagiarists don’t “steal” words, but they do steal the rewards that attach to the public recognition of authorship, which are credit, prestige, and authority.
Among students, the societal norm that “stealing is wrong” does not appear particularly robust. Students routinely download files and music illegally, and they don’t have much compunction about it. One student interviewed in a recent survey said, “There are so many people doing this that the risks are so low. . . . It’s like shoplifting without the risk or retribution” (Wong). Clearly the issue here is not the applicability of a moral norm prohibiting theft, but an economic norm in favor of the calculation of profit and loss. But even for the students who think stealing is wrong, and I mean really wrong, plagiarism doesn’t look like normal theft. From the perspective of the thief, stealing is a way to get things. You want bread, you steal bread; you want jewelry, you steal jewelry; you want music, you steal music. But when students plagiarize, they “steal” things, usually words, that Page 197they frequently don’t want or care about, or even hold onto for long. From a legal perspective, there’s not much difference between stealing something and keeping it, and stealing something and giving it away, but subjectively, the two practices apparently look quite distinct.
Students and “authors” do not participate in the same economy. If it isn’t words and ideas, but is in fact credit that is being stolen, do students understand this? They do, of course, understand the idea of credit, but in most cases they consider that credit to be of a very different sort than that accumulated by a professional author. To put it another way, rarely, if ever, is an author deprived of credit when my students reproduce her work. Students do get something out of it: time, excitement, and the possibility of a better grade, but when students “steal” from professional authors, they receive only a form of token-credit, a token only valuable within the walls and rules of the house. Students think plagiarism is a bad thing because it can be dangerous to them—they might be caught. It’s like a computer virus—the thing that worries them when they download illegal software. It is, moreover, a calculation, a playing of the odds, a game, and the theme song of the game is this: Practice “safe writing,” don’t catch anything, don’t get caught.
At my college, the faculty handbook positions plagiarism squarely in the discourse of the law. Listen to the resonance of courtroom drama (emphasis added):
All cases of suspected plagiarism or cheating, whether deliberate or seemingly inadvertent, must be so reported, in order to invoke the hearing procedure a student accused of plagiarism may request a Committee on Standards hearing. . . . If the student is exonerated . . . If suspended . . . [N]ormally, guilt or innocence of plagiarism or cheating is determined by the Committee on Standards and the dean primarily on the basis of the factual evidence submitted by the instructor. . . . A student’s ignorance of what constitutes these offenses or of the rules concerning them is not considered to bear on this question. If a student is judged guilty, circumstances surrounding his or her action may be taken into consideration in determining appropriate penalties. (Hobart and William Smith Colleges)
The language is of cases, suspects, reports, hearings, accusation, innocence, guilt, exoneration, evidence, judgment, and penalty. The process, it appears, is invoked automatically. Even the mechanics of the appeal is crafted to have the look and feel of the law.Page 198
In three cases I have participated in, my account was taken first, and the student was asked if she had anything to say in response. The faculty members of the Committee on Standards then addressed questions to the student: Do you know what plagiarism is? Do you think what you did is plagiarism? Were you aware at the time that what you were doing was considered plagiarism? Where did the material that was not yours come from? Did you do what you did deliberately? Once the committee had heard the “evidence,” it asked us both to leave the room while they deliberated in secret before inviting us back to hear the “verdict.” What is striking about the process is the degree to which it is framed and elaborated as a judicial one. What is even more striking, however, is that while there is quasi-legal language, there is no law. There is no set code that governs the rules of evidence, the limits of plagiarism, the limits of accusation, or the reasonable extent of punishment. There is no direct or open appeal to precedent, and if members of the committee have any knowledge of past cases, it is purely accidental.
National estimates suggest that between 20 and 40 percent of college students cheat or plagiarize. Yet at my school, in 2004, only three cases came before the deans. Out of a student population of just under two thousand, that’s a little more than one-tenth of 1 percent. It’s possible that our school is special, and that the students don’t cheat here, but it seems unlikely; according to the deans, most cases of plagiarism are “handled” by professors individually. I have learned, based on anecdotal evidence, that in my school plagiarism is quite widespread, but that it is rarely acknowledged, and even more rarely “prosecuted.”
In practice, then, our claims that “plagiarism is theft,” and the corollary that their prosecution is somehow “legal,” are undermined by the weakness of our legal theater. We are not convincing because, at least at a communal level, we don’t believe that student plagiarism is theft. Our claims are inauthentic and false, and so, to the sharp eyes of our students, who have surely had plenty of practice in spotting just such inauthenticity in other authorities, we look foolish, not to mention hypocritical.
We can assume that if our students suspect us of hypocrisy, their suspicions are confirmed when we press them to work cooperatively on papers, to workshop and peer-edit, and to discuss their forming work freely in class and in our offices. We tell them to do it themselves, and to do it with others. It’s an unhappy mix.
I have argued that the claim that plagiarism is theft, or stealing, may make sense among professionals, but it fails to do so among students or in Page 199the academic-pedagogical context generally. It fails because (1) norms concerning the morality of theft are changing, particularly among our student population; (2) subjectively, from the student’s point of view, plagiarism does not meet the definition of theft, in that the plagiarist does not get what she steals; (3) to the extent that credit is stolen, the meaning of “credit” is not the same for professionals and students (thus students do not see themselves as “stealing” something that they could in fact steal) (4) our use of a quasi-legal theater to sustain an antiplagiarism norm has been ill-conceived, and it has therefore not been successful; and finally, (5) in our teaching we have not adequately articulated the relationship between ostensibly “original” work and “collaborative” work, and we have thus failed to displace the assumptive norm that originality is “better” than collaborative work. In such a context, it’s no wonder that plagiarism might not seem like a big deal to students.
But plagiarism is a big deal to me, and it is to many teachers I know. It is important to me not because it is “criminal,” but because it undermines the intimacy that helps make teaching possible and rewarding. Plagiarism displaces that intimacy with a new form of relationship, one characterized by instrumentality, deception, and infidelity. Arguably, we have set the stage for such a disruption, but we nonetheless depend on pedagogical intimacy to make teaching work. From this perspective, plagiarism is not an act; it is a relationship, a social form that, while always transgressive and often disruptive, can on occasion offer teachers and students unanticipated opportunities.
My students, by and large, are well prepared and willing. But last year, after receiving a wave of papers from my first-year writing seminar, I noticed that the work I was receiving was surely plagiarized. We had been reading George Orwell’s 1984, and the students had produced copious freewriting about the novel, engaged in peer-critique, and had chosen essay topics in consultation with me. The process was as much about topic choice and development as it was about the finer points of the essay.
It wasn’t hard to tell which papers had been written and which had been clipped, and I developed a functional, if somewhat cynical, approach to the preliminary triage. If a sentence had even a breath of grace, I checked to see if Google knew anything about it. My first inquiry brought up one student’s paper as the first hit; he had simply cut and pasted it as a whole—almost whole; the omissions from the original were almost as telling as the plagiarism itself. The student removed from the essay the only passage that suggested even the slightest intellectual challenge. Once I had received, and Page 200identified, the first piece of plagiarism, I began filing through the papers on my desk, looking for sentences that seemed out of place. I was angry. I Googled a few and came up with hits. I began to get the picture: the papers had been assembled, half-written, pasted-down—they were plagiarized.
I was struck by my students’ skepticism about their own writing and “voice.” They seemed so sure that they had nothing to say, and no voice to say it in, that I wouldn’t notice that the papers weren’t theirs. Their skepticism certainly clarified my task: to help them realize that they might have something to say and a way to say it. The disjuncture between the students’ misperception of their own “voices,” specifically that they do not have them, and the perception of readers of their work, who perceive those voices clearly, suggests a kind of rhetorical self-negation, almost a blindness with respect to authorial self. Student plagiarism, from this perspective, might best be seen as a dysfunctional manifestation of a psycho-rhetorical disorder, a kind of displacement, a failure of identification in which the literary self is absent or unavailable.
I have many times been told that before accusing someone of plagiarism, I should be sure of my claim. The first paper was too blatant a misrepresentation to have been rooted in ignorance, but I suspected that I’d find more plagiarism, as it seemed plausible that some of it might have been somehow innocent, or at least ignorant. When I next met my class I had the students write a brief essay in answer to the question, “What is plagiarism?” I wanted a signed statement from each of them. There was no confusion; with only a couple of exceptions, the students agreed that plagiarism is “using someone else’s words without attribution. Stealing someone else’s words or ideas.” A few called it a “coward’s way out,” and worried “it was something that could get you into big trouble” because “you could have plagiarized without your knowing what you’ve done.”
I then told my class about the papers, and I let them know I was angry. I suggested that if any of them was worried about whether or not they’d plagiarized, that they should come see me. That day, as my office hours approached, students began lining up outside my door. In the end, twelve out of my thirty-four students came to meet with me. There was, it seemed, a lot to worry about. Most of the students were worried for no reason. A few had failed to cite properly, but it was clear to me that most of their failures were clumsy, not deceptive. One student, though, walked in my door, sat down, looked at the floor and said: “I did it. You were talking about me, right?” And it was true. We talked for a while. Why had he done it? He told Page 201me that he was stressed-out. He had been having trouble with his girlfriend. Some of his family members were sick. His team had been taking a lot of his time, and his courses had all somehow gotten backed up. He apologized and wondered what would happen. I told him to go, directly, to the deans.
The next student entered my office, smiled, and said that she thought I might have found some of her writing troubling. I agreed that I had (hers had been one of the papers I had first picked up), and I gave her my copy of her paper, on which I had marked a couple of passages I knew she had not written. She looked at the paper, sighed, and agreed that the passages were not hers, and that it hadn’t been the right thing to do. But, she said, she hadn’t exactly been clear about how to cite, and she didn’t really think that what she had done was as bad as it appeared. She just hadn’t known what to do. It was simple ignorance. I resisted the impulse to punish. “Fine,” I told her, “I will work with you. Why don’t you take your paper back and cite each bit that isn’t yours, and indicate which bits are yours. I’ve shown you how to cite (and don’t worry, I’m not worrying about the little things) so you can go do it. We’ll work in good faith.”
I soon received an e-mail with a new version of her paper attached. She had cited every passage I’d marked. It seemed like a good resolution, until I saw a suspiciously graceful phrase. Sure enough, she had cited the marked passages, but no others; the paper appeared to be a complex pastiche of pastes, patch writing, paraphrase, and unmarked quotations, and she was hoping to get out with the least trouble she could manage. I sent her an e-mail containing a single question mark and the Web address from “Spark-notes” from which some of the remaining material had come.
We agreed that she would identify all the material that she had written herself, and cite what she had taken from other sources. She would have to go before the Committee on Standards, which would decide on the consequences of her case. I recommended that she speak to the dean immediately. As it turned out, she had been brought before the Committee on Standards once before on a similar charge—she had been caught cheating on a science test. (She hadn’t really cheated, she said.) Because my case was not her first offense, the penalties were likely to be more severe than usual, and might include expulsion; she was terrified and began to e-mail me multiple times a day. She was sure that if she were to be expelled her parents “would kill her,” and that she “couldn’t accept it.”
I suggested that she write a letter of appeal to the committee, in hopes Page 202of reducing her punishment. She latched onto the idea, and when I suggested that she start the process using the very production techniques we had discussed in class, she agreed enthusiastically. Which is to say, she became a writer, and I a writing teacher. She wrote:
I have begun loop writing on the points that we picked out of my freewriting. . . . I am thinking that I should continue loop writing this weekend and then have a rough draft of my appeal to forward you this weekend or show you Monday. Do you think we should meet another time or I should get this put together now that I have my strong points?
I having been working away at my appeal and doing lots of loop writing and I have a question about the order of my points in my appeal.
But it wasn’t all good. There was also fear.
Professor H. spoke with a reliable source and was told, just like I was told, that I must write my appeal based on the four criteria from the handbook. As we both know, I really do not have anything to go on from there.
. . . I intend to turn in the appeal tomorrow, but am obviously very concerned. I have spoken with a couple of other professors for advice and to request letters of reference, and one thing they suggested was that I ask you directly to drop the charges. I feel awkward asking you this via email, . . . but, again, I do not think my violations warrant removal from school. I realize this would require a drastic step on your part, but I would be willing to make it up to you however you see fit, on my honor (which I can assure you remains intact). I realize you are trying to bring attention to this issue and think we could team-up to do so. I am at your mercy and would be greatly indebted to you if you would drop the charges.
. . . Please, can you give me another chance to prove to you and myself that I can change and get through what I have done.
The student stopped coming to class, but became intensely engaged in writing. She drafted proposals for antiplagiarism education programs, developed a Sapir-Whorf hypothesis for her own plagiarism, arguing that in mathematics scholars “plug in” formulas and variables without attribution, and because she saw herself as a math major, not a humanities major, she should reasonably be expected to follow the norms of mathematics. She wrote letters to other professors seeking advice and assistance, and she Page 203even asked me to write a letter on her behalf, which I did—with significant reservations and caveats (I would have been more supportive if she hadn’t written to the dean to say that she “had not been dishonest”).
Eventually her case came up, and she and I were called to stand before the committee to explain the case. She came to the hearing, like any smart defendant, well dressed—in a respectable dark blue pantsuit—and she read a long prepared statement to the committee in which she argued that “something has to be done about the problem of plagiarism at this school,” and that she was the one who could help. The gesture was, in part, one of contrition, but one that at the same time confirmed a fundamental disruption of her ability to perceive her own ethos. Her statement was heard, and apparently ignored; because she had been found guilty of cheating once before, she was expelled—temporarily. The student and her mother, who had inquired about the potential for a lawsuit, eventually and reluctantly accepted her punishment. The student is now back on campus, doing fairly well, and the case appears resolved.
My student, then, despite all the pain and anguish that accompanied her “trial,” became, even if only for a few weeks, a writer, and she saw and worked with me in my role as a writing teacher. From a pedagogical perspective, the incident was a success; the student, once so disengaged from learning, had seen with near-blinding clarity the reasons for writing drafts, for conferencing, for editing, and for thinking hard about writing. There were other unexpected effects. Quiet students began to find their voices, and marginal writers became suddenly attentive to writing and to detail. In some cases it looked like simple fear; they were afraid that they would do something wrong and get nailed for it. But in others, it seemed that the intensity of our relationship had suddenly increased. Students and teacher were made more distant, but also brought closer together; the apparently “criminal” act became a pedagogical encounter. Plagiarism, to quote Howard (“Sexuality”)—with a slight shift in emphasis—did “cultural work.”
A number of my colleagues have suggested that plagiarism is the product of poor teaching, that it comes from lackluster classroom theater and vague assignments. While it is true that we can do a great deal to preempt transgression, it strikes me as odd that we should be expected to shoulder the burden alone. The best advice, clearly, is to teach with as much vigor and engagement as possible. Yet we also have to wonder why the vocabulary we share with our students is often so limited; why my students were so easily ready to feel and express remorse, but not to engage in intellectual Page 204inquiry, or to engage with the “academic community.”
The act of plagiarism brings into play new actors. The “academic community,” usually nothing more than a vague shadow to the student, suddenly appears to both faculty and student newly materialized. The college’s handbook, the signal of bureaucratic authority, takes on new power as all parties turn to it for rule. And in its black-and-white text, where statements are phrased in the imperative mood (the student will receive a grade of F in the course), the players find thin guidance, as imperative text gives way to contingent reality. Each individual player will take on many roles. The teacher will become investigator, police, judge, and finally (perhaps) executioner. The student, once seen as a person of potential, will appear to the college and professor as a somewhat more fixed quality—a violator, a cheater perhaps, or in more friendly times, an ignoramus. The student’s immediate context, usually invisible to all concerned, will take on heightened significance, and may emerge into light. The student will turn reprobate, criminal, fool, child, lawyer, and perhaps belligerent.
As the stage becomes crowded, the relationships among all the players will gain heightened significance, and they too will shift shape. Between student and teacher will emerge, perhaps, a newly charged Oedipal dy-namic, as the urge to “kill the father” seems more and more apt. Perhaps the student will feel the need to confess, and if he does, then to whom shall he confess? So perhaps the professor, if she is warm, will become confessor and potential redeemer, or if she is cool will stand as accuser and interrogator, rejecting all confession as irrelevant. The professor, too, will have new social needs: what is her obligation to the “academic community,” and how is that community represented in the immediate circumstances of her collegiate surroundings? Who are the deans, and what role will they play in shaping her response? What does she owe them?
In her bad dreams all her students will hand in identical essays, each cut-and-pasted from the same foolish website, and in the morning or in class, she will look at them with suspicion. And perhaps she will feel angry, and even though she might attempt to hide that anger, judging it misplaced, she can hardly do so successfully, and the classroom will take on a new atmosphere, one potentially poisonous, but just as conceivably nurturing. Or, just as likely, she has learned that each case deserves to be heard and understood on its own merits, and she will wonder just how little do her students really know, and just how do they regard the school in which they study. Of course, she will feel some measure of affront, probably laced with humor, that her students thought she wouldn’t notice! And then she Page 205would realize how little they understand about the subtlety of voice and rhythm, and how much work she has to do. She might go home to a companion, who will share her anger and outrage and humor, and she will find from the disruption of her classroom intimacy a new intimacy elsewhere.
Of course, it is just as likely that another professor will see the same paper differently, perhaps not notice anything wrong, or at very least not enough to make a stink about. After all, these things take time and energy, and they might not be worth it. And so this professor will distance herself from her classes, sensing, rightly, that something is off somehow, but that it isn’t worth getting into. Thus the professor will begin to experience removal, or dismissal, and will feel, probably, a sense of increased interaction with her own self and work. She might feel more powerful than she did earlier, as she was able to detect the plagiarism and to determine the outcome of that detection without any interference from outside authorities.
From a legalistic perspective, plagiarism has a slippery quality, shifting as it does from theft to defamation to fraud to passing off (Green). From a social analytic perspective, however, it’s much easier to assess. First, plagiarism is not simply an act, it is a categorical designation for a range of relationships, all of which center on a subjective sense of transgression. Only by analyzing the way the relationship of plagiarism takes shape can we say whether it is best fit by paradigms of “theft,” “fraud,” “infidelity,” or even excessive intimacy. Moreover, by viewing plagiarism as a relationship, we become more aware of its productivity, of the ways it shapes and refigures other identities and relationships. Plagiarism from this perspective comes to serve not merely as prohibition, but as an illumination of our pedagogical and administrative practices. When we cling to the juridical metaphor to define plagiarism, moreover, we become its slaves, and we might wish, finally, to be stolen away, liberated, plagiarized.
1. I owe special thanks to my students, and to Antonia Saxon, George Cooper, Allison Truitt, and Ann Russ for their discussion, comments, questions, and suggestions. I also owe what I hope are obvious intellectual debts to Rebecca Moore Howard and Stuart Green.
2. Many authors have made historical arguments to the effect that the moral prohibition against stealing has weakened in recent years. I have seen no evidence that either supports or refutes the claim. It is clear, however, that the prohibition is not as powerful as many people, particularly authorities and property owners, would like it to be.Page 206
4. We tend to recognize it as a transgression, but only very rarely do we imagine that a particular case of plagiarism involves theft from the author. It is often true that teachers experience plagiarism as a personal affront, or a breach of implicit contract, but in such cases the offense is not against an author, rather it is against the teacher.
5. Topics ranged from a discussion of hypnotism to an analysis of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Some students wanted to write about Orwell’s dystopia and its “relation” to current U.S. politics. I discouraged them, suggesting that they would find it difficult to carve out much writing space from the dense critique available on the Web. Three chose to write on the topic against my advice, and of those students, two plagiarized. I later learned that there are extensive Web resources for students writing about any “classic” work. The available material ranges from complete essays to public advice boards. In the Orwell thread on “Sparknotes,” for example, students posted queries and comments such as these:
i need help with the following: i have to do a diary entry (winston’s point of view). i still don’t know what i should do it about. any suggestions? it’s writer’s block for me right now. i must write a minimum of 500 words max of 1,000. i must respect the language, style and setting.
any suggestions please email me @ . . .
Essay on Newspeak
posted by sonofdabitch on 6/5 4:23 pm
The topic of my essay is an explanation of Newspeak. I’ll have to write more than 1000 words. The problem is that I can’t find a lot of material on the topic besides the appendix. Can anybody give me some advice ?
connecting to todays world
posted by petercom10 on 9/11 3:08 pm
if you want to connect newspeak to something similar in our current society, euphamisms are similar to newspeak in that it changes what you are saying by making your speech seem milder and politacally correct
6. Their responses, for all their uniformity, were suggestive. To see plagiarism as the “coward’s way out” suggests a linkage to a guiding notion of masculinity—plagiarism is for pussies (for more on this line of inquiry, see Howard, “Sexuality”). The idea that plagiarism is something that could somehow sneak up on you suggests that students see it as part of a tactical tool-kit of teachers, who are in opposition to the student.
7. At one point she went so far as to draft a letter to the dean in which she said that she “could not accept expulsion.” I had to point out to her that she was in no position to accept or reject anything. The incident indicated (again) a profound Page 207ethos disruption, the rhetorical equivalent of a personality disorder.
Green, Stuart P. “Plagiarism, Norms, and the Limits of Theft Law: Some Observations on the Use of Criminal Sanctions in Enforcing Intellectual Property Rights.” Hastings Law Journal 54 (2002): 167–242.
Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Faculty Handbook. https://campus.hws.edu/aca/provost/handbook/faculty_handbook_part_3.pdf, consulted May 15, 2007.
Howard, Rebecca Moore.”Plagiarism: What Should a Teacher Do?” Paper presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Denver, March 2001.
Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Sexuality, Textuality: The Cultural Work of Plagiarism.” College English 62 (March 2000): 473–91.
McCabe, Donald, and Linda Trevino. “What We Know about Cheating in College.” Change 28, no. 1 (1996): 28–33.
“SafeAssignment: Easily Deter Plagiarism in Your Class Using SafeAssignment for Blackboard.” University of Illinois at Chicago. http://www.uic.edu/depts/accc/itl/safeassignment.html, consulted June 2, 2006.
Wong, Brad. “Illegal Downloads Don’t Pose Ethical Problem for College Students.” Seattle Post Intelligencer, June 30, 2005. http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/printer2/index.asp?ploc=t&refer=http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/business/230702_downloads30.html, consulted May 15, 2007.
Insider Writing: Plagiarism-Proof Assignments
It was the best of assignments . . . . Newcomers to St. Louis in 1974, we had chosen to live in Clayton because of its excellent public schools. So my heart leapt up when I beheld the instructions for our son’s very first sixth grade English assignment, “Write a poem in the manner of Robert Frost.” This Laird did, refusing—as usual—to let us even see his work until he brought it home with the teacher’s comments. I do not remember the poem, alas, but I do remember how all changed, changed utterly when at the bottom of the quatrains appeared, in impeccable copperplate, the teacher’s only observation: “This is a very good poem—if you wrote it.” Maintaining my customary decorum—I had yet (nor have I still) to punch any rogue and peasant slave in the nose—I suppressed my outrage and asked Laird, “May I complain to your teacher?” “Over my dead body,” quoth the innocent (not his exact words), so I forbore.
This cynical skepticism reveals how even good assignments can go bad if a teacher doesn’t trust her convictions, or her students. Today she’d have gone straight to the Internet, where a Google search would reveal some 32,800 hits for the combination of “Robert Frost” and “Whose woods these are” in English alone. What a waste of time, and what a displacement of intellectual energy! Laird’s teacher was, in fact, on the right track and should have had confidence in the integrity of her assignment, recognizing that it was, if not plagiarism-proof, then plagiarism-resistant. For hers was a classic “insider writing” assignment.
As teachers, we need to exploit the broad spectrum of possibilities for Page 209insider writing assignments—those that inspire originality because they are plagiarism-proof. To do so, we need to examine how we ourselves understand our own discipline as insiders. Whatever we take for granted as disciplinary assumptions and knowledge, norms and values; how and why we do our work; and what we consider big issues, ongoing problems, can become the basis for writing assignments that will invite students to look inside, to understand, to remember.
Why the Current Concern with Plagiarism-Proof Writing Assignments?
It is far easier, more intellectually interesting, and more ethically satisfying to prevent plagiarism than to track it down. It’s far more productive and a lot more fun for teachers and students alike to work in the atmosphere of trust that insider assignments engender, with their implications of collegial creativity, rather than with the suspicion adhering to more conventional assignments. Innovative assignments resistant to plagiarism are particularly important in an era when student culture implicitly condones copying software and downloading MP3 files, is dependent on Internet search engines, and believes that even copyrighted information is there for the taking. These insider writing assignments are original in conception; they encourage student writers to be original, thoughtful, and engaged; they can be revised and refined anew for every student in every class. They assume and operate on the assumption that students will actively participate as insiders in investigating the topic at hand, and in creating some of the issues and materials to be studied, and not simply approach topics from the outside as passive consumers of ancillary sources.
Insider Writing versus Outsider Writing
Robert Scholes claims that in writing conventional critical papers students are put in the position of trying to second guess the teacher’s interpretation of unassailable iconic texts. They too often feel forced to read and write as aliens, bowing in reverence before the sacred texts of the literary canon, “‘the best that has been thought and said,’” offered up by teachers serving as “priests and priestesses in the service of a secular scripture” (12–13ff.). The same obsequiousness prevails when students, novices to the subject at Page 210hand, rely heavily on experts on any topic, in any field. Students, writing of necessity as outsiders, see themselves as pressured to consult the experts, to patch together others’ ideas and words (see Howard) in the hope of coming closer to understanding the subject than they would if they depended on their own ideas. Yet as outsiders suppressing their own judgments, student writers serving as ventriloquists of published scholars are not positioned to own the primary material or to trust their opinions of it. With so little of themselves in their writing, they have little incentive to care very much about their work.
In contrast, when students write from inside the problem, issue, or literary or historical work at hand, they operate as engaged participants rather than as alien outsiders whose understanding comes through what others—sometimes centuries of others—have had to say on the subject. As I explain below, through the examples of my own literature course and those in other disciplines, teachers in all fields can construct assignments that compel their students to understand the perspectives, values, beliefs, norms, and customs as insiders. By creating dialogues, dramatizations, primary documents, or position papers in the process, students are directed to produce meaning, rather than to reproduce received opinion.
With such assignments, student authors perforce have to accept and assume some authority for knowing and understanding the problem or issue at hand. Admittedly, this authority is limited by the students’ actual experience with or understanding of the situation they’re writing about, as it would be in most undergraduate papers. Yet these assignments have considerable integrity, and consequently, so do the students. Teachers whose courses are described below (see also Adler-Kassner, Crooks, and Watters; Downing, Hurlbert, and Mathieu; Flower; Grobman) claim that because as a rule the students are heavily invested in the lively dialogues or events in which they’re participating, they work harder, learn more (they generally have to buttress their insider understanding with outside sources), and write far more convincingly than with the usual routine academic exercises. Because these writing assignments are highly specific to both the courses and to the individual student’s participation in them, they’re more varied, more interesting, and nearly impossible to plagiarize. As the context changes every semester, so do the assignments; students have to construct their specifically nuanced topic from the ground up, every time.
How Insider Writing Works: Model Courses
Coming of Age in American Autobiography, a course I’ve taught over the years to honors freshmen and a variety of upper-division undergraduates, took on new vitality when I changed the writing assignments from conventional papers of literary criticism to imaginative scenarios in which the students created or reconceived the autobiographers and significant mo-ments in these lives. My students examine autobiographies, including those of Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass (the 1845 version), Harriet Jacobs, Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Richard Wright, and Maxine Hong Kingston, in their human, historical, and literary contexts in order to understand as readers, critics, and writers the significant issues and problems of the autobiographer’s art.
The students analyze the ways autobiographers shape their self-presentations in a variety of roles: as members of a particular gender, ethnicity, or social class; as individuals in family, occupational, and other group contexts; and as people fulfilling particular destinies or roles in a specific historical context. To accomplish these aims the students “become” the characters they are writing about through employing a variety of literary forms, including monologues, dialogues, dramas, philosophical presentations, letters of job application or professional vitas, and imaginary journal entries.
Among the many possibilities for writing is an assignment that asks pairs of students to “write a dialogue between Franklin and Douglass in which they discuss, debate, and ultimately define the meaning(s) of one of the following concepts as it pertains to either coming of age as an individual or as a nation (or both): independence, self-reliance, defiance of authority, citizenship, maturity, contributions to/engagement in the larger society.” Another asks student duos to
Design a twenty-first-century house for Thoreau (will it be static or mobile, rigid or free form?), in an appropriate setting (will it remain at Walden Pond? Or will you relocate it? Why?). One of you (as Annie Dillard) acts as the decorator, while the other is the environmental engineer and landscaper. Remembering Frank Lloyd Wright’s dictum, “Form follows function,” this dwelling and its environment should reflect and symbolize the predominant values of both Thoreau and Dillard. These characteristics are reflected in the appended list, “Writing in the Manner of Thoreau and Other Nature Writers” [see appendix]. You may include illustrations—a drawing, floor plan, sketches, photos, whatever, ad-lib.
Because the papers have to be historically accurate, characters from different times must have a plausible way of communicating with one another, one that respects the era and the ethos of each; the students may choose a contemporary or future time if they wish. One memorable presentation was that of an engineering student, who delightedly filled all the whiteboards in the classroom with diagrams of an environmentally friendly geodesic dome, from various angles, employing mathematical formulas to illustrate its ecological properties. Other briefer writings involved keeping a Thoreauvian journal; telling a joke Dillard’s family would appreciate; making a list imitating Richard Wright’s lists of sensory encounters with objects and phenomena; and constructing a cautionary tale analogous to “No Name Woman,” which opens Kingston’s Woman Warrior.
I consider these assignments historical rendering because they are embedded in factual information. My students, however, call them creative writing, in part because they’re highly unusual in freedom, form, and voice for academic writing, and they are unique in the students’ experience. Students deadened by conventional expectations revive as they reanimate their subject in a process that compels independent thought and allows them to tap wells of creativity they didn’t know they had. While working with partners, they learn from one another—not so much factual information, which both have to find from external sources—but perspective, pacing, the sound and sense of sentences, dialogue, organization. Many seem surprised that such enjoyable assignments require them to work harder than they expected to, even though they are sharing the work, and at how extensively they need to revise (often, by supplying additional evidence or information) once the class has heard their intermediate version.
Of course, to fully experience autobiography as a literary form, it is essential for the students to write an autobiographical essay, thereby to understand the genre as insiders once again, in this case as real-time, real-world autobiographers. This is, perhaps, the ultimate “insider” writing, the quintessence of a paper impossible to plagiarize. Students still have to figure out ways to make accounts of first true love, recognition of life’s unfairness or random chance, experience with war or exile or divorce or death meaningful in new ways to the jaded reader. Thus, about midway through the semester, when the students felt comfortable with each other and with me, I ask them to “tell a true story of your experience with an event, person or group; recognition or development of a belief or value system; or other phenomenon that was pivotal in your coming of age and/or understanding of the world.” In the interests of full disclosure, I share with Page 213them my autobiographical “Living to Tell the Tale: The Complicated Ethics of Creative Nonfiction.” Here I use the story of discovering my twinhood, whose existence and neonatal death my parents had concealed from me (including denial, altering my birth certificate, swearing talkative relatives to secrecy) as the vehicle for exploring such fundamental issues as “Who owns the story?” “Who has the right to tell/suppress/interpret it?—for what readers?” and more. The implied message is clear: if I can do this, making myself vulnerable to readers and at the same time transforming life into art, so can they.
Although these assignments specify three to five pages, most of the students write double or triple that number, not counting revisions. They expect to be able to dash off a personal reminiscence; then artistic and philosophical and ethical issues intervene, and they revise again and again. And again. In an era when many students take writing-intensive courses simply to fill a requirement, this is surely an index of student investment. And yes, of course, I too invest a lot of time responding to these multiple drafts, but the results are worth our collective effort, say the student evaluations, enthusiastic affirmations of this writing that, as one student said, “makes me better than I am.”
My students’ class presentations stimulate lively, invested, and involved discussion. The students come alive when they read these papers, individually or in pairs, to their primary audience, the class; their discussions are energetic, enthusiastic, and engaged. When I asked the students to evaluate each assignment individually, to a person they loved “trying new modes of writing and getting into the heads of the authors we were reading.” They write, “I was pleasantly surprised with the assignments. I liked them a great deal more than the simple, mechanical, and stereotypical critical papers I was used to.” The autobiography, voted “the best paper of the year,” provided further validation of insider writing: “It gave everyone a hands-on experience with the genre. While I found writing about myself exceedingly difficult, this assignment gave me a great appreciation of the subject matter of this course.”
Other Sample: Insider Writing Assignments
Two areas examined below, classical studies and service learning, are representative of the burgeoning literature on writing across the curriculum, as addressed in John Bean’s Engaging Ideas and Art Young’s Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum. Many of their suggested writing assignments Page 214(“microthemes,” peer reviews, assessment of evidence or issues in learning) can be adapted to specific disciplines, and further refined to employ an insider’s perspective.
Dramatizations of Classical Works
Classical studies professors Christy Friend and Mark C. Carnes created classroom experiences comparable to my own. Desperate to liven up classes full of passive, tuned-out students, each teacher devised classroom dramatizations of classical works in which students played insider roles in the cultures they were learning about. In each course, as in mine, the students, well informed, wrote more sophisticated and longer papers analyzing the issues addressed. Friend’s students reenacted the controversiae on affirmative action from Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, openly “questioning assumptions about merit and equality, and examining the political, historical and cultural factors” influencing these (9–12). In Carnes’s “Liminal Classroom” students enacted scenes from their reading, such as Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates in The Republic and Confucius’s resolution of disputes in The Analects, examining the classical works within “the contexts of the impassioned debates and dramas from which they had emerged.” Because the students in both teachers’ classes became so thoroughly invested in their subjects that they not only “spent countless hours outside of class meeting in factions and cajoling the undecided [,] they worked harder on papers and submitted more of them,” even though the assignments were “far more demanding” than they had been earlier, when students merely read the texts (Carnes B6–B8).
Real-World Writing: Insider Writing in Service-Learning Courses
Service-learning courses in all disciplines put students into real-world writing situations where it is impossible to plagiarize. The students serve as aides or interns in nonprofit organizations, public schools, hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters, and other community service endeavors (see Deans, Writing Partnerships, appendix B; Grobman 129; Cushman, “Service Learning”). From their “insider” perspective, albeit one with limited authority, they write either in, about, or for that context. Often they cross “cultural and class boundaries by collaborating” both in writing and in “pragmatic civic action” with “community partners” who may be very different from themselves (Deans, Writing Partnerships, 9–10). Their writings are thus specific to both context and situation: reports, bulletins, brochures, operating manuals, position statements, case studies, reflections on programs and Page 215the student’s participation therein are among the plethora of possibilities (see Flower; Deans, Writing Partnerships; Cushman, “Sustainable Programs”). Service learning owes much to Freire’s liberation pedagogy of “social dreaming,” which assumes “that if students perform ideological analysis and critical literacy in the classroom, they will parlay that critical consciousness into concrete civic action later in their lives” (qtd. in Deans, Writing Partnerships, 109).
Space considerations allow only a single characteristic service-learning assignment to represent the philosophical and pedagogical rationale for such writing. Deans’s textbook, Writing and Community Action, offers two alternative forms: either a “Community-Based Research Essay” that ex-plores “A Social Concern or Local Problem” or an “Agency Profile Report.” Both incorporate experience and comparable research methods, requiring students to interview agency personnel and community members and to do fieldwork through writing field notes and journal entries, evaluating sources, and synthesizing material from agency documents, library, and Web sources. The student’s investigation might be a “prelude to community service,” helping newcomers—new tutors, for instance—“understand social issues and engage in community work.” Or students could use community service to “explore complex problems, and spur critical reflection” through analyzing their fieldwork in its social context. For instance, a student working in a homeless shelter could progress from the fairly literal, “How do I make sense of what I saw today?” to the broader, “What options for job training are available?” to considering the most general and most difficult, the influence of “local, national, and global economic forces” on homelessness. In addition, community-based research can be “a form of social action in its own right,” if students, as they work with community members, can actually produce position papers or reports that “can help social change organizations do their work.” In all assignments, students examine ethical issues: What is the project’s purpose? Does it respect everyone’s “rights and dignity”? Who might it benefit, and how? Might there be any “potentially problematic consequences”? (Writing and Community Action, 273–76).
As this assignment illustrates, writing in service-learning courses involves so many separate components, each embedded in the students’ ongoing experiences, that it would be impossible to fake. Although these writings are not without problems, including what Cushman describes as the “liberal do-gooder stance” of the newly socially conscious (“Public Intellectual,” 132), or the “hit it and quit it” superficiality of a single semester’s involvement Page 216(“Sustainable Programs,” 40), all are perforce original. Claims that exceed the authority of the students’ limited experience can usually be tempered by judicious questions, to be addressed in the requisite revision, on the order of: How do you know? What’s your evidence—and from what sources? Is what you say always true? Applicable in all instances?
Insider Assignments: They’re Really Not about Plagiarism
In the final analysis, avoiding plagiarism is fundamentally a secondary concern for teachers, whose efforts are better spent inventing writing assignments that are original, intellectually demanding, participatory—the essence of insider writing. As we have seen, such assignments can open up new ways of responding to the student’s world, to the world of ideas, to issues that are relevant to contemporary life. These writing assignments promise to be exhilarating, creative, fun. Best of all, they inspire the passion that comes from investment in one’s work, pride of authorship of writing one owns and loves.
APPENDIX: WRITING IN THE MANNER OF THOREAU AND OTHER NATURE WRITERS
Thoreau set the style and pace for 150 years of American nature writers who continue to follow in his footsteps. Among the major characteristics are the following:
- First-person perspective. “It is, after all, always the first person that is speaking” (107).
- Unassuming authorial persona.
- Desire for simplicity. “My purpose in going to Walden Pond was . . . to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles” (119).
- Self-reliant and resourceful. “I lived alone . . . a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself. . . and earned my living by the labor of my hands only” (107).
- Philosophical. “To be a philosopher . . . [is] so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust” (116) [e.g., a natural philosopher].
- Curious.—intellectually, philosophically, existentially—about everything. Page 217
- Love of solitude. “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time.” (See “Solitude” chapter.)
- Compulsion to march to a different drummer. “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing, it is very likely to be my good behavior” (113).
- Sensitivity to the natural world, all things under the sun, great and small. “For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms” (118).
- Cosmic awareness, a vision of infinity, eternity. “Walden has become situated not only in Massachusetts but in the heart of America and in the center of the universe” (116).
- A desire to live fully in the moment. “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time . . . have been anxious . . . to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment” (117).
- Sense of moral superiority and physical well-being. Uses the natural setting as the basis for providing a critique of society (including the entire world), and sets up his corner of the universe as a model for the world to follow.
This is a partial list, to which we can add. (See also Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Harvard University Press, 1995.) Your Thoreauvian notebooks should exhibit some of these characteristics in each entry; try in some entries to imitate Thoreau’s style of writing, as well. Feel free to disagree with Thoreau’s opinions, as you wish.
Adler-Kassner, Linda, Robert Crooks, and Ann Watters, eds. Writing the Community: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Composition. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education, 1997.
Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.
Bloom, Lynn Z. “Living to Tell the Tale: The Complicated Ethics of Creative Nonfiction.” College English 65, no. 3 (2003): 276–89.
Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Carnes, Mark. “The Liminal Classroom.” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 8, 2004, B6–B8.Page 218
Cushman, Ellen. “The Public Intellectual, Service Learning, and Activist Research.” College English 61 (1999): 328–36.
Cushman, Ellen. “Service Learning as the New English Studies.” In Beyond English, Inc.: Curricular Reform in a Global Economy, ed. David B. Downing, Claude Mark Hurlbert, and Paula Mathieu, 204–18. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton, 2002.
Cushman, Ellen. “Sustainable Service Learning Programs.” College Composition and Communication 54 (September 2002): 40–65.
Deans, Thomas. Writing and Community Action: A Service-Learning Rhetoric with Readings. New York: Longman, 2003.
Deans, Thomas. Writing Partnerships: Service-Learning in Composition. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2000.
Downing, David B., Claude Mark Hurlbert, and Paula Mathieu, eds. Beyond English, Inc.: Curricular Reform in a Global Economy. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton, 2002.
Flower, Linda. The Construction of Negotiated Meaning: A Social Cognitive Theory of Writing. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.
Friend, Christy. “Imitations of Battle: Quintilian on the Classroom and the Public Sphere.” Composition Forum 14, no. 1 (2003): 1–16.
Grobman, Laurie. “Is There a Place for Service Learning in Literary Studies?” In Profession 2005, 125–40. New York: Modern Language Association, 2005.
Howard, Rebecca Moore. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Stamford, CT: Ablex, 1999.
Scholes, Robert. Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
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Plagiarism across Cultures: Is There a Difference?
The first part of my title, “Plagiarism across Cultures,” raises a question that has been fiercely debated for many years in the field of second-language (L2) composition, particularly in what is called contrastive or intercultural rhetoric (Connor). Research in this area has examined how a student’s first language and home culture may affect his second language writing. The second part of my title, “Is There a Difference?” raises another question, of how great are these differences and what is their significance for the teaching of L2 composition. This issue of cultural difference in attitudes toward plagiarism has always been strongly contested, with charges and countercharges about racism and about “essentialism,” and whether Western attitudes toward English-language teaching denigrates the cultural values of English-language learners (e.g., Kubota and Lerner).The sharpest division of opinion has been about how cultural differences affect the attitudes these English-language learners have toward plagiarism (Bloch; Matalene; Pennycook; Chandrasoma, Thompson, and Pennycook; Stanley). Much of the research has examined possible cross-cultural differences among English-language learners whose first language is Chinese. Teachers have often jumped on this view of cultural difference to justify their views of plagiarism in Chinese society (Matalene). Many Western educators believe that Chinese students neither understand Western concepts nor feel that such plagiarism is an unacceptable practice. And sometimes this view is true, especially when we define plagiarism in absolute terms.
While China has a long tradition of literacy, the importance it places on collectivism is often seen as dichotomous to the Western concept of individualism. It is often assumed that this collectivistic nature devalues the Romantic concept of authorship prevalent in the West and places a Page 220greater value on imitation. Because it has been thought that China is more of a collective society, it has been assumed that there is less concern for how intellectual property is appropriated or attributed. Therefore, a greater degree of imitation in the creation of new intellectual property is both encouraged and valued. These assumptions underlie the belief that all English-language learners bring to the classroom a different value system in regard to plagiarism than the one prevalent in the West (Howard “Standing”; Chandrasoma, Thompson, and Pennycook). Chandrasoma, Thompson, and Pennycook argue that some forms of plagiarism can be acts of resistance to the dominant forms of rhetoric, especially where these forms contradict the students’ own epistemological traditions (189).
These problems can be especially true in Chinese cultures where imitation has long been highly valued. The link between originality and ownership, which often shapes the moral metaphors regarding “theft” related to discussions of plagiarism in the West, may not be as clear-cut in Chinese culture. This essay will examine the nature of this relationship between imitation and originality and how a different perspective on this relationship can affect both our attitudes toward plagiarism and how we teach our L2 students about plagiarism.
I became interested in this topic because of two incidents I experienced many years ago when I was teaching in China. I was teaching at a time when there were still few materials available to my students about current trends in composition pedagogy. My aunt had forwarded a copy of College English that contained Carolyn Matalene’s often cited and highly controversial article on contrastive rhetoric, which was based on her teaching experiences in China. I gave copies of this article to my students to read and respond to. That evening there was a knock on our door from a group of very agitated students, who were upset at what Matalene had said, particularly about how Chinese students do not seem to share a negative attitude toward plagiarism that she would expect to find. I would later tell this story to Alton Becker, who has written extensively on intercultural linguistics. His response was that when you tell someone they are different, they think you mean they are inferior, a topic that I will return to later.
The second incident I encountered illustrates how the basis of this controversy over plagiarism has its roots in the concepts of imitation and originality. During a visit to my father-in-law, who is a well-known professor of Western art in Guangzhou, I told him about an exhibit of a thousand years of Chinese art and how impressed I was with the continuity of the artworks across such a long period of time. He glared at me across the dining Page 221room table and said, “There is nothing similar about them.” What was imitation to me was highly original to him. My encounters with my students and my father-in-law have helped shape my view today that the answer to the question, “Is there a dichotomy between these two cultures in how they view imitation, originality, and plagiarism?” is always “maybe.”
The Dichotomy and English-Language Learners
How we answer this question shapes how we view our students and their problems in negotiating the boundaries of plagiarism. Pennycook, for instance, raises a concern about whether the application of such concepts as plagiarism, which are deeply rooted in American economic life, might reflect a desire to impose Western values in contexts where they may not apply. Therefore, he argues that plagiarism can be seen as an act of resistance against the imposition of alien rules. In other cases, it may be seen as an act of survival where the risk of having the wrong idea outweighs the reward of having an original one. I have told the story of a Chinese student who admits to having plagiarized during the Cultural Revolution in order to be sure to have the correct political line, from which any deviation could result in severe penalties. His acts of imitation and plagiarism may be thought of as acts of political survival and therefore something to be admired (Bloch 218).
As most advocates of contrastive rhetoric would argue, differences in languages and attitudes do not normally imply a “deficit.” However, resistance to the idea of a deficit, both in rhetorical and moral terms, seems to fade away when discussing plagiarism. Kubota, for example, has argued that focusing on cultural differences can cause students to feel negative about their own language and practices, as my students in China seemed to show. The consequences of this essentialism can be seen in how some teachers in the United States condescend to international students by assuming that they should not be held to the same standards as native speakers since they simply do not seem to “get it” in regard to plagiarism.
At the heart of these misunderstandings has been the assumption that originality and imitation are opposites in the same way that individualism and collectivism are. A Romantic view of artistic creation has led some to denigrate the value of imitation. In fact, Westerners memorize, imitate, and plagiarize all the time. Imitation in the form of using other peoples’ ideas is seen in the West as intertextuality. Memory pervades everything we Page 222say and write. As Alton Becker put it, “The history of our particular interactions, oral and written, builds each of us a domain of discourse, a constantly changing-drifting-domain of discourse in which we live and have an identity” (230). The recall of these memories can also be seen as an integral part of what it means to be literate. The precise ways in which such memories are used can vary greatly both across and within different genres of writing. In postmodern views of academic writing, we memorize the writings of the “giants” and use them in our papers to show that we have read them (ethos), that they agree with us (logos), and if they disagree, they either must be wrong or discussing something different (Latour).
Yet imitation continues to be associated primarily with so-called collectivistic cultures, such as China, which values the imitation of previous knowledge as an expression of the connection between past and present. This dichotomy between individualism and collectivity has been strongly challenged by many researchers in Chinese thought. Hall and Ames argue that individualism and collectivism are not mutually exclusive, but are both deeply integrated in Chinese culture. An individual in Chinese society can be concerned with herself as an individual and with the society at the same time. We can see the same in the Chinese rhetorical tradition. There is no question that Chinese learning emphasizes the imitation of traditional forms of intellectual property. Learning is shaped at an early age by the importance given in literacy instruction to memorizing characters and imitating the classic writings of the sages. Achieving literacy requires the rote memorization of characters. Chinese children are taught that it is not enough to learn to write; one must also imitate the traditional stroke order for every character. From this perspective, how Chinese writers appropriate texts is deeply inherent in Chinese culture.
The imitation of a common canon of texts, which is thought to be the source of much of the problem with plagiarism, may be culturally crucial, but it does not obviate the importance of critical thinking or personal expression. This same viewpoint has been found in Chinese rhetoric for the last three thousand years. For example, when Chinese children learn ancient T’ang poetry, they begin by memorizing the poetry. The Chinese believe that such memorization is a good exercise for the brain. By memorizing the rhymes, they can better understand their beauty. However, as my early encounter with my father-in-law showed me, the importance placed on imitation does not obviate the importance of originality. But what is meant by originality still may not be the same as it is in the West, and therefore what is meant by plagiarism may also not be the same.Page 223
The Chinese have often reflected on this question of imitation and originality. There is a Chinese saying, perhaps somewhat sarcastic, that goes
How do we view creations such as these? An act of theft? An act of learning? An act of creation? Regardless of the answers, we can recognize in this saying our own Western concept of intertextuality. This saying also recognizes the value imitation has on the production of original knowledge. The rhetoric of imitation is also part of the Chinese form of epistemology, which can be seen in another saying, Wen gu ru xin (Review the old materials to gain a new perspective) that demonstrates how imitation can lead to originality rather than be a hindrance. We can see this traditional Chinese way of thinking reappear in contemporary thinking about intellectual property. The term remixing, which Lawrence Lessig has applied to how new forms of intellectual property are created from old forms, suggests the thought that all texts “remix” prior texts to create something new. Perhaps the Chinese approach to memorization and originality is not dramatically different from what is found in the West. Therefore, the importance given today to this intertextuality in all forms of writing has made it necessary to rethink attitudes toward plagiarism, especially as it applied to non-Western cultures.
Historicizing Cultural Differences
Scholars have shown that current ideas and practices related to intellectual property and plagiarism are socially constructed and therefore can change as social and economic factors change. We can see in historical studies of Chinese rhetoric that imitation is only one form of epistemology that Chinese thinkers could draw upon (Blinn and Garrett; Garrett). A study of traditional Chinese texts, even those written hundreds of years ago, can reveal how Chinese writers would imitate the classics, but at the same time extend their meaning and add their own voice (Henricks). Although textual attribution might be quite different, Chinese attitudes toward intertextuality and remixing have never been monolithic but have greatly varied across different periods and between different rhetoricians and philosophers.Page 224
The importance given to imitation has carried over into some, but not all, of the rhetorical systems traditionally found in Chinese literacy. The examination system for over a thousand years stressed the importance of memorizing and imitating classic texts, although this approach to education was never the only one that existed. Confucius’s famous dictum, “I transmit rather than create,” has often been cited, perhaps in an oversimplified manner, as referring to the appropriation of texts with no need for additional interpretation. Memorization and imitation, however, were not viewed as simply the recapitulation of ideas but rather as a fusion between the learner’s process of thinking and that of the sages, as is any form of intertextuality. An individual in Chinese society can be concerned with herself as an individual and with the society at the same time, in the same way any writer can be concerned with both.
The complexity of this relationship between imitation and originality can be seen in the difficulty students can have in judging what constitutes plagiarism. The question a lawyer might ask about how much a piece of intellectual property has to be transformed before it is considered “original” is similar to the question the student might ask about whether a piece of text is considered plagiarized. Answers to students’ questions about how much they can imitate before their writing is considered to be plagiarism or whether common knowledge must be cited revolve around attitudes toward intellectual property and plagiarism, which, in both China and the West, have been shaped by cultural, economic, and historical factors (Alford; Jaszi; Lunsford and Ede; Vaidhyanathan).
This connection between concepts of plagiarism and concepts of intellectual property can give researchers an important perspective for overcoming the often simplistic way cultural differences in plagiarism have been viewed. To Westerners, China appears to lack a sophisticated system for protecting intellectual property, which is then seen to be a cause of the apparent proclivity of Chinese students to commit plagiarism. If English-language learners do not agree that plagiarism is the same as the theft of real property (as the etymology of the word plagiarism as “kidnapping” suggests), then societies such as China will inevitably be viewed as “a nation of pirates.” Should teachers feel, then, that Chinese culture encourages plagiarism in the same way the record and motion picture companies seem to feel Chinese culture encourages the theft of their songs and movies?
Looking at these issues in a historical context will show that these differences are not as wide as is often thought. As Alford points out, attempts to impose Western forms of intellectual property law in China were problematic Page 225because they did not attempt to account for “the character of Chinese political culture” (2). The idea of protecting the intellectual property of a “creative genius” has been considered at odds with the “collectivist” nature of Chinese society. Despite differences, there has been a recognition, as there has been in the West, of the author’s ownership of her intellectual property.
However, there are differences as well, which may be related to the greater emphasis placed on the community. Chinese intellectual property law has long been as concerned with the control of property as much as with the rights of individual authors (Alford 57). As is shown by the deals the Chinese government has cut with Yahoo and Google to limit access to online materials, the government has more often focused on the control of private property than on granting private property rights. The relationship between the individual and the society has never appeared to be as dichotomized as it is sometimes seen in the West (Mao).
Therefore, it can be said that neither intellectual property law nor attitudes toward plagiarism have developed in the same way in China as they have in the West. Bloch and Chi found that traditionally Chinese writers did not place as much importance on the attribution of source texts as their Western counterparts, although, as will be discussed below, the situation has recently been changing. The differences in such practices may cause some Chinese texts to be considered plagiarized by Western standards. Yet Bloch and Chi also found much similarity in the rhetorical purposes these citations were used for, indicating that these differences are not as pervasive as is often thought.
As Vaidhyanathan demonstrates, nineteenth-century America, which imported much of its intellectual property from England, had lax attitudes toward plagiarism, and the wholesale theft of intellectual property occurred, creating what we sometimes refer to, in regard to present-day China, as a “culture of plagiarism.” While we speak today, sometimes sarcastically, of a “plagiarism epidemic” among today’s students, research shows that plagiarism was extensive in the nineteenth-century American university (Berlin; Russell; Vecsey). Vaidhyanathan argues that new forms of intellectual property, such as the development of motion pictures and the domination of the United States in the world market, helped change attitudes toward the protection of intellectual property. At the same time, universities became more research oriented, and students were expected to emulate the intellectual work of their professors (Vecsey), which may have contributed to new attitudes toward plagiarism.Page 226
However, as the history of intellectual property and plagiarism indicates, these attitudes can change dramatically as the social and historical context changes. A historical study challenges the concept that attitudes toward plagiarism are somehow intrinsic to specific cultures. We can expect that attitudes toward plagiarism in both China and the West will shift as historical factors converge and become more homogenized, even as these factors may have diverged at other times. Therefore, as Howard argues, we should change our attitudes and policies toward plagiarism as we have changed our approaches toward teaching composition, especially in the age of the Internet, when new forms of online texts require new approaches to thinking about plagiarism (Howard, “Understanding,” 11).
There have been similar changes in how plagiarism is viewed in China. In modern times, Chinese thinkers, perhaps influenced by the West or by changing contexts inside China, have become more reflective about this concept. Liang Shiqiu, a Western-educated Chinese academic, comments ironically about that Chinese perspective on the relationship between imitation, originality, and plagiarism:
Copying from a book is called “Plagiarism”;
Writing a book based on ten is called “Reference”;
Writing a book based on a hundred is called “Creation.”
There have been obvious changes today in how plagiarism is viewed in Chinese academic society. While the pirating of intellectual property is still widespread, those segments of Chinese academia who wish to integrate themselves into Western cultural traditions are changing their attitudes toward plagiarism. For example, Science magazine, the official journal of the American Academy of Sciences, has reported a number of cases in the past decade of Chinese scientists caught plagiarizing (Li and Xiong). Over the same time, many American academics and journalists have also been caught. Therefore, it can be argued that neither society is more a culture of plagiarism than the other.
What is more interesting about these stories is how differently the accused have responded in each country. Li and Xiong report on a case of a scientific article considered to be plagiarized that had been submitted to a Western academic journal. The authors were not accused of stealing data but only the words of the English-language papers. Unlike Americans, who usually claim carelessness or memory lapses when accused of plagiarism, these Chinese academics, when confronted by their colleagues, readily Page 227admitted that they had copied parts of the literature review but felt that “the charge of plagiarism is not valid because we have all the data” (Li and Xiong 337). They argued that they had not falsified or stolen data, which occurs frequently in scientific research; rather, because of their limited English, they had had to resort to copying to make their paper suitable for publication. It could be argued that because this paper had been published, the fresh data was sufficient to provide a new meaning for the text that was allegedly plagiarized.
The surprise that these Chinese academics felt toward these accusations of plagiarism can be seen as a reflection of changes in attitudes toward plagiarism, as well as changes in the goals of those Chinese academics who wish to move to the center of Western academic societies. To achieve these goals, Chinese academic may have to devalue previously held views about the relationship between imitation and originality. Neither the Chinese authorities who reported the incident nor the Western journal editor valued this process of “remixing” through which new meaning was created. In essence, despite the relevance of the authors’ findings, their process of memory and imitation was not valued, which put the authors in the same situation as if they had falsified or stolen their data.
It could be argued these scientists were guilty only of patch writing; that is, imitating the ideas of those who came before and then mixing in their own ideas as a means to become accepted as academic writers. However, they were not viewed in that way by their colleagues. This conflict over the relationship between imitation and originality also revealed changes in attitudes by the Chinese academics who blew the whistle on their colleagues. They seemed to feel that their own work would not be accepted in the West unless they adhered to Western standards regarding plagiarism. There have been parallel changes in the enforcement of Western forms of intellectual property law in China because of the government’s desire to enter the World Trade Organization.
We can see in the “crackdown” on academic plagiarism, like the “crackdown” on pirating software and DVDs, how attitudes are changing in China. Chinese academics, like Chinese government officials, seem to realize that if they want to play in the game, they have to play by the already established rules. Speaking of the Chinese molecular biologist who led the inquiry into the accusations of plagiarism of the scientific article, Robert Schilperoot, the editor of the journal Plant Molecular Biology where it was published, said, “I think he’s part of the new generation that is pushing hard to adapt Western standards” (Li and Xiong 337). Clearly, traditional Page 228Chinese rhetorical standards, including the relationship between imitation and originality, were not thought good enough to be valued in the West.
As we come to recognize the contingent nature of plagiarism, we need to reframe the discussion on attitudes toward plagiarism across cultures. Chinese academics want to be accepted in Western academic communities, to be able to move from the periphery to the center (Lave and Wegner), which today means primarily publishing in English-language journals regardless of the writer’s English-language ability. This tension between how Westerners view Chinese culture and how Chinese view their own culture is not new; it has existed for hundreds of years.
In conclusion, there is not today, nor ever has been, a single Chinese perspective on imitation, originality, and plagiarism, but, as I learned from my father-in-law, there is a different sense in how these concepts interact. Studying this relationship in a cross-cultural perspective reminds us of the danger of dichotomizing these concepts across cultures, so that only one culture is viewed as the “other.” The result has often been an oversimplification of many aspects of the learning process—how students interact, how students think logically and critically, and even how they organize their papers, but the potentially most damaging effect can be found in how we understand the literacy practices of our students. At best, there has been a condescending attitude toward international students: that they should be treated differently because they don’t know better. At worst, we have lost the opportunity to understand the complex learning strategies our students bring to the classroom.
If we place notions of intertextuality and remixing at the center of our teaching of writing, we can shift the debate away from moralistic ap-proaches to plagiarism and toward a pedagogical one. Nonnative English speakers may still have problems negotiating the rules of plagiarism, but the problem is one of understanding the rules about how intertextuality is treated, not of obeying moral precepts. Moreover, when their process of imitation does not yield the desired result, their problems can be seen more as a language issue than a moral one. As Becker puts it, the process of entering into a new culture is one of confronting the “silences” of the new culture with the memories one brings along.
Plagiarism is similarly a problem of language. After all, these rules that govern plagiarism, like any set of rules, are never monolithic or static. They can vary across different genres and different writing contexts, but most importantly, the more complex the rule, the more it needs to be taught so that everyone can play on a level playing field. This perspective can help Page 229both researchers and teachers develop a framework for discussing plagiarism and developing pedagogies for teaching about plagiarism that helps our L2 students understand its subtleties and contradictions, as well as the reasons why the rules exist in the first place, in the same way they learn about any other aspect of literacy.
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On any given day, it’s easy to find media coverage of plagiarism. A search in the Lexis-Nexis Academic database reveals hundreds of stories published in the last six months alone. A Google search with the words plagiarism and college students—which, admittedly, pulls up a range of items about college students and plagiarism, resources to address the issue of plagiarism, and other items related to the keywords—results in a staggering 1,690,000 hits. Plagiarism is hot. Nor is that heat limited to the popular media; colleges, faculty, and students are equally consumed by the notion that plagiarism is widespread and uncontrollable. Writing for the New York Sun, Lauren Mechling worries that originality itself is endangered by rampant plagiarism. And she quotes statistics offered by a university-sponsored consortium: “According to a recent article in The New York Times, Duke University’s Center for Academic Integrity says 40% of college students admit to plagiarizing off the Internet, up from 10% in 1999.” The BBC News, meanwhile, alludes to an “epidemic” of plagiarism, invoking the metaphor of disease—disease spreading uncontrollably—as a frame for understanding plagiarism. A volatile mix is brewing here: the fear that plagiarism is not only rising but attaining the status of a pandemic; that the core values of our society (such as its reverence for originality) are threatened by this virus; that students are duplicitous cheats or naive innocents; that technology Page 232functions as a medium for facilitating plagiarism; that technology can likewise be used to curb plagiarism; and that teachers’ function is to thwart or catch plagiarists.
As faculty members in composition and rhetoric and as writing program administrators, we share in the concerns about plagiarism that are voiced by colleagues in our programs and institutions, by administrators, and by members of the public. Yet as scholars of student authorship, we have come to realize that this attention to plagiarism represents students and technology in ways that undermine not only good writing instruction, but the values of a liberal education.
News media reflect and perpetuate these problematic representations by describing student plagiarists as Web-savvy cheaters or as naive innocents. This binary sensationalizes and simplifies the issue while “naturalizing” its own assumptions, impeding a critical understanding of intertextuality that can be applied in educational settings. Pedagogical possibilities are similarly constrained, deriving from a model of honorable or dishonorable, knowledgeable or ignorant students. As a counteractive, we advocate using the concept of “plagiarism” as a starting point for teaching students to recognize and adapt to the wide variations in the values informing the creation, use, and representation of text in the academy and the larger culture. This approach, we argue, is vital for students’ development and for the educational enterprise itself. In 2003 all three of us contributed to a best-practices document about plagiarism that was commissioned and published by the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA, “De-fining”). That document promotes not only academic ideals of source citation but also academic ideals of writing instruction. Although teachers and administrators can and do draw on elements of that document, representations of plagiarism in news media (especially definitions of the problem and its one-step, technological solution in programs like Turnitin.com) demonstrate the power of the “plagiarism narrative” and the challenge of moving the conversation beyond a moral dualism, reductionism, and oversimplification.
Cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall explain the cultural process whereby definitions associated with “events” (such as plagiarism) are “constructed into a seamless narrative.” Because they reflect and perpetuate the worldview of those participating in the narrative, these definitions become naturalized so that it is impossible to raise new questions or consider alternatives (Hall 4). This narrative is encompassed by what cognitive theorists, most notably George Lakoff, call “frames”—“unconscious cognitive models” Page 233that shape humans’ understandings of the metaphors through which we construct our worlds (Lakoff, Moral Politics (1996) 159). Naturalized frames powerfully shape current understandings and future actions. The frames around “plagiarism” shape a narrative about how the roles of students, technologies, and writing instruction are dictated either by deceitful or ignorant students whose (intentional or unintentional) disregard for conventions of academic ownership are undermining the educational system. These actions that are taken (by educators and policymakers, especially) have significant consequences for students and for the broader culture that defines “education” (and particularly “college education”) as a virtual requirement for participation in the nation’s civic dialogue (e.g., Butler).
Naturalized Representations of Plagiarism
Representations of students, technology, and the purpose of writing instruction in the news stories analyzed here contribute to a conception of education that involves not teaching, but “catching” students. Students were described as duplicitous cheats in twelve of twenty-two (or about 54 percent) of the stories examined. Typical of this narrative is a statement by a philosophy professor from Eureka College: “When I was young, they were copying out of the encyclopedia. Now, they’re copying stuff off the Internet” (Steinbacher). The representation of students as naive innocents who “don’t necessarily know what plagiarism is” and “don’t know that copying a few lines is plagiarism” appears in eight of twenty-two (or about 36 percent) of the stories in the sample (Diamond). Our sample was also dominated by two portrayals of technology. In fourteen stories (or 63 percent), technology was a medium facilitating plagiarism; this was coupled with the intimation that duplicitous students knew well how to use technology to their advantage and to undermine good teacherly intentions. Phil Anderson, director of the Honors System at Kansas State University, “credits” student ingenuity in a story from Community College Week. “The technology is certainly an enemy of academic integrity, and we have to figure out how to address those issues. The students are on the cutting edge” (Finkel).
The Internet is also portrayed as the weapon that can prevent this perceived abuse when it is used by qualified professionals. Of the fourteen stories in which technology was a medium facilitating plagiarism, ten stories also described technology—specifically, Turnitin.com—as a tool that could be turned against cheaters. A statement such as this could have come from any of these stories:
The Internet constitutes a school. It is offering a course of direct and specific instruction to plagiarize. Students are learning lessons in cheating, but no one in a position of responsibility knows anything about them, because students are much tech-savvier than they are.
But it didn’t. The “quotation” above actually comes from a 1910 article entitled “The Moving Picture: A Primary School for Criminals” and reads this way:
These moving picture shows constitute a school. They are offering a course of specific and direct instruction. . . . The boys and girls of the land are learning . . . lessons in wrongdoing, but no one in a position of responsibility knows anything . . . about [them]. (McKeever 184)
Internet frames for discussing plagiarism reprise long-playing themes about the perils of technology, especially for children. Finding stories about the threat of one communication form or another to students or children in 2005, or 1954, or 1904 is an easy job (see, for example, McKeever’s article, or Fredric Wertham’s The Seduction of the Innocent for earlier examples; for scholarly analyses see Gilbert, May, or Douglas). It also doesn’t take much digging to find discussions of the role of schooling in transmitting (or communicating, or teaching) “traditional American values,” particularly the idea that a democratic society is perpetuated through the participation of virtuous citizens who understand the values of that democracy (see, for example, Dewey’s Democracy and Education, or the language in the No Child Left Behind Act [United States Department of Education]).
But implied in the news stories about plagiarism is an additional complication: students are now using technology in schools to thwart the purpose of education. The level of threat is therefore more severe because one of the institutions charged with protecting “higher moral principles” and ensuring their perpetuation is being undermined by the very technologies that are doing the undermining outside of school. Thus, these news stories also fulfill a paradoxical role often played by mainstream media: stabilizing the threat posed by other media to those values. In this case, stabilization occurs in part through the framing of students and “antiplagiarism” technology discussed earlier, and in part through the framing of the teaching of writing. In the few stories here that mention writing instruction, the primary purpose of that instruction was not to foster good writing and good writers, but to prevent duplicitous students from cheating.Page 235
Certainly, good teaching prevents or at least deters plagiarism. Certainly, instructors in all fields should create original assignments, work with students on multiple drafts, and engage with students in the work of a classroom. But all too often stories frame this good work as important not because it helps to develop good writing or good writers, but because it prevents students from fulfilling the role of Web-savvy, duplicitous cheats. An interview with Greg Van Belle, a composition instructor at Edmonds Community College, illustrates how language that invokes best practices in writing instruction is framed by the idea that the purpose of good instruction is to stop bad students. “Detection services only inspire more ingenious cheaters,” the story reports. “[Instructors] argue that carefully crafted assignments and more creative teaching is a better deterrent to plagiarism. . . . Van Belle said assigning an essay on the same topic year after year invites cheating. Better to vary assignments, link classic texts to current events, or ask students to write about how a work of literature relates to their lives, he said” (Thompson; emphasis added).
Van Belle’s remarks capture an additional dilemma posed by the current frames surrounding writing instruction, technology, and writers: negating a frame—insisting, for example, that students are not looking to cheat—only serves to perpetuate the frame (Lakoff, Elephant, 3). The take-away message from this story, for instance, is not that carefully crafted and more creative teaching will lead to good writers and good writing, but that such pedagogy will prevent students from cheating. Invoking “better ways to prevent plagiarism” serves only to strengthen the assumption that students are looking to plagiarize.
In the frame that dominates news media representation of plagiarism, students are undermining foundational principles of education associated with ownership and credibility; if they are smart, they are doing so intentionally, and if they are naive, they are doing it unintentionally. Teachers are either being duped or are playing catch-up to their more sophisticated students, often with the aid of ostensibly even more sophisticated technological aids.
Media representations create an objective for educators—the prevention of plagiarism and the detection and punishment of transgressors. This representation competes with and even detracts from the objectives that educators themselves hold—objectives such as helping students understand and participate in complex cycles of credit and credibility, write effectively, take responsibility for their writing, and participate in civic dialogue. Pursuing such objectives requires that we shift the use and meaning Page 236of “plagiarism” and the representations of students, technology, and education that accompany it.
Reclaiming the Frame: Citation Practices
Reclaiming education entails teaching students to recognize and adapt to wide variations in the values that determine how a text is created, used, and represented in specific social, academic, and occupational contexts—values often connected to cycles of credit and credibility that obtain in the academy and the larger culture. Consider one such textual domain, broadly characterized by “public information” and increasingly accessed over the Internet. If you happen to be searching for information about safe food handling in your kitchen, you might stumble on a fact sheet at the USDA’s substantial Food Safety and Inspection website. This fact sheet contains the following information about defrosting frozen foods:
Never defrost foods in a garage, basement, car, dishwasher or plastic garbage bag; out on the kitchen counter, outdoors or on the porch. These methods can leave your foods unsafe to eat. (USDA)
Although much boilerplate fills the pages of the Web, this statement, with its odd use of a semicolon and its journalism-style omission of the comma before the last element in a series, can be considered a piece of “original” text. In fact, it is unusual enough to have prompted the following exchange between two members of the Internet forum Insanetrain.com:
banana: I just read this on a food safety site. “Never defrost foods in a garage, basement, car, dishwasher or plastic garbage bag.” Has anyone ever defrosted food in the frickin dishwasher?!?!?!
devious: Or in your car?
As original as the fact sheet excerpt is, we find it repeated verbatim—idiosyncrasies of content and punctuation preserved—at a site promoting the preparation and consumption of curries (CurryCooking.com). In the absence of any citation, visitors to this site must assume that the text was authored by someone at this organization, whose Web page includes the global statement, “Copyright © 2005 CurryCooking.com and its licensors. All rights reserved.” The text is also replicated in an article, “Focus on Freezing Foods,” at a site promoting Filipino recipes and cuisine (lutongbahay.com). Page 237Along with other unacknowledged information from the FDA source, the article is authored “by Lutongbahay” and later is said to be “brought to you,” the consumer, by the site’s sponsoring organization, with a 2001 copyright. A bit of searching yields many more cases in which material from the FDA document, including this excerpt, is provided verbatim and without attribution—at cooking and recipe sites, at state and municipal agencies, and at business sites selling food products.
Curiously, however, a slightly altered version of the excerpt appears at the website of the Johnson County, Kansas, Environmental Department, where the odd semicolon has disappeared, replaced by a period and followed by three newly inserted words before the original text is taken up again verbatim:
Never defrost foods in a garage, basement, car, dishwasher or plastic garbage bag. Never defrost foods out on the kitchen counter, outdoors or on the porch. These methods can leave your foods unsafe to eat. (Johnson County Environmental Department)
The website does acknowledge a source (the Food Safety Inspection Service) and includes a page of disclaimers, among them that users of the site “are responsible for checking the accuracy, completeness, content, currency, suitability, and timeliness of all information.” A search for this slightly altered version yields several other sites where it appears verbatim, with the longer string of locations and the absence of the odd semicolon, but again without attribution. At one site, Colorado State University’s Cooperative Extension page, an article titled “Foods in the Freezer: Are They Safe?” authored by Margaret Miller, who works for the university, includes the altered line verbatim; the page itself looks like a conventional article, with a title in a larger font centered at the top, then Miller’s name, then the text (Miller).
At this point, several interesting and puzzling phenomena concerning the food-handling text have emerged. The USDA site seems to be the “source” of the text, but it is impossible to know from the site where it came from and who wrote it (since many public-service government documents are not individually attributed). Other sites—CurryCooking.com, people at the University of Georgia and the University of Colorado, the Filipino cooking organization, and companies like Corex.com, a manufacturer of Italian pastas—also could be the likely authors of this text, but they variously claim or disclaim ownership, fiddle with the text or leave it as is, Page 238and in all cases embed it within the rhetorical, informational, and pragmatic goals of their organization. Reflected in the many sites where one or another version of this excerpt appears is a kind of open-source attitude toward textuality, a free sharing of and even a willingness to slightly edit information with some trappings of ownership and intellectual property rights layered thinly over it all. The free-floating use of text repeats itself throughout the civic or public world. Explorations of other information domains—what do to when a tornado is approaching, the myths and facts of lightning, how to avoid being harmed in a flood or hurricane—yield hundreds of cases in which source text is replicated verbatim, cut and pasted without attribution, and in many cases so embedded in the organization’s Web-presented material that it appears to have been created from scratch. Were these websites written by students and submitted in a college class, they would doubtless reinforce the argument advanced in the news stories analyzed above. Filtered through the dominant news media frame for representing plagiarism, these sites would most likely be called the work of plagiarists. Yet if we step outside the binary frames provided by the news media, we can apply alternative frames to interpret these issues of text ownership, and thereby situate our concerns and admonitions about plagiarism in the broader world of words and ideas.
One such frame comes from sociologists of knowledge Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar, who have studied the ways in which science and scientists operate, and the values that drive their profession and give them individual and collective incentive. In their analysis, academics who want to rise in their professions become caught in a cycle of credit and credibility that is based in research and publication. As this credibility accrues, authorized by a complex system of professional checks and balances (for example, by reviewers who themselves have earned sufficient credibility to be appointed judges and evaluators), scientists earn credit—material rewards such as increased income and marketability, promotion and tenure, royalties, grants, assistants, equipment, and honorariums. Latour and Woolgar explain that this increased credit in turn produces additional credibility that enables further publication, public appearances, grants, prestige—and the cycle continues.
For many academics, the desire for credit and credibility provides a powerful motivation to research and write. That desire is continually reified through the system of rewards and punishments practiced in academic institutions—a system that, in recent years, has found its way into educational institutions whose previous missions focused primarily on Page 239teaching, such as two-year schools and smaller liberal arts colleges (the administrative motivation presumably being to advance credibility at an institutional level). As opportunities for publication have become increasingly constrained, the competition for credibility is only heightened, fortifying the ideology of “intellectual property.” For academics, it is difficult to imagine doing research for an institution, writing it up, and not wanting to “own” it.
Seen through this frame, the rampant replication of documents written in public contexts for the public good, such as the information about safe food handling, may seem reprehensible, misguided, and unethical. Outside the academic frame, however, such practices look quite different. If credibility is not earned through the production of public documents, credit does not become a motivating force, and giving or getting credit for a text hardly matters. The goal of text produced in civic contexts is not to garner credit and credibility in the ways academics understand these concepts. Government offices even encourage the adoption and circulation of public texts. If anything, credit in public contexts comes from the appropriation and replication of important information; success in the production of a leaflet on AIDS awareness, for example, is measured not by the fact of its publication and its contribution to the author’s curriculum vitae, but by the massive reproduction and circulation of its contents, with or without attribution.
In fact, academic institutions are themselves constituted of multiple activity systems and discursive communities and thus reflect varying ways to earn credit and credibility and various means by which certain outputs are or are not rewarded. Many cases of so-called plagiarism occur at the borders where one set of (typically academic) values and practices blurs into another (typically public) set of values and practices. For example, cases exist in which one university reproduces the plagiarism policy statement of another university without attribution, placing it on its website for public consumption (see Morgan and Reynolds). In such cases, a period of recantation, apology, and shame follows the discovery of the ironic borrowing, reflecting the conflict of two institutionally inscribed value systems (one that argues fiercely for intellectual property rights, and another that argues for the free use of existing documents when there is no sense in creating unnecessary labor). In other settings at these same institutions, faculty no doubt exchange and use syllabi, teaching strategies, outcomes statements, administrative procedures, and other texts without citing their original source. Because the value system does not reward the production of such texts—Page 240despite the fact that they involve deep commitments of creativity, energy, and time to produce—their ownership and attribution are not important.
In spite of the nearly universal academic mantra for giving credit, few scholars and educators acknowledge the rhetorical and pragmatic forces that also work against attribution. For example, educational institutions do not want to create a public persona in which it appears that they are too lazy or unproductive to write their own plagiarism statements. Finding a perfectly acceptable plagiarism statement at another institution may be an attractive alternative to writing their own, but the desire to create a persona of industry and originality acts as a disincentive to crediting the other institution. Similarly, many business contexts operate with selective proprietary interests in their own texts. Internet travel brokers will replicate descriptions of resort properties verbatim from the resort’s site, preferring to use the resort’s descriptions instead of risking misrepresentation with their own; yet they rarely cite the resort itself as the source of the text. They want consumers to believe that they are representing the property themselves in order to create trust and gain their loyalty. The resort hardly cares whether the PR material it commissioned is being co-opted by the broker, as long as it helps to fill rooms. But if a competing resort were to use the same text without permission, litigation would certainly result. Here, the value system driving the selective application of copyright provisions is almost purely economic, the “credit” connected not to individual authorship but to corporate profit. In many cases, the text itself only partly reflects corporate identity and ownership since portions are often replicated from site to site, blurring the lines between intellectual property and boilerplate (e.g., “Ideally situated close to shopping and major attractions, the [El Corazon Resort and Spa features a series of Mexican-style villas, each appointed with] . . . “[El Corazon]).
Acknowledging the existence of different discursive communities with different practices and activities allows us to imagine that in no community is the textual value system unitary or stable (see Russell). With this more nuanced understanding of textuality, teachers can help novice writers to make ethically and rhetorically sound choices specific to the various textual situations in which they find themselves.
Aligning Representation with Practice
The divergences between frames surrounding representations of authorial practice and the realities of that practice constitute what linguist Michael Page 241Agar has called a rich point, a moment when different interpretations of a metaphor, shaped by different frames, come into contact (and often clash) with one another. This rich point has fueled a sense of emergency that informs public and academic discourse on the topic of plagiarism. Alarmed by the latest technology that seems to threaten literacy and ethics, and working within frames that portray students as duplicitous cheats or naive innocents, educational efforts too often fail to recognize that the goal of writing instruction is to help develop good writers who, among other things, understand that textual practices (including those of source use and attribution) exist within rhetorical contexts and know how to analyze and meet the expectations in those contexts. Instead, these efforts strive to remediate individuals or systems in order to prevent students from fulfilling the role of duplicitous cheats.
The remediation of individuals occurs in institutional documents like the student handbook, which typically includes a definition of plagiarism, together with institutional regulations against the practice of plagiarism. Individuals are also remediated in writing from sources through classroom instruction that is focused on transmitting textual conventions (practices of quotation, citation, and documentation). Both of these efforts work within the frame of the student as naive innocent: If students are informed of the institution’s policies and are taught the rules of citation, they will have the information needed for avoiding plagiarism. But behind them—in the judicial boards or deans’ offices where plagiarism cases are sent—lies the frame of duplicitous cheats, as well.
These remediations work from what Paolo Freire has called a “banking” model of education (77), in which education consists of transmitting information. In this model, individuals are machines that act seamlessly as a result of being programmed with the necessary information. Failure to do so derives from a conscious choice to transgress; it constitutes an ethical lapse in the subject.
Not only individuals but also social systems are remediated within the frame of students as duplicitous cheats or naive innocents. Systemic remediations may take place in the classroom or the larger institution. Rewriting plagiarism policy, instituting an honor code, and redefining the term plagiarism are three types of systemic reform.
A fourth type of system reform—and one that dominates media coverage of plagiarism—is the use of automated plagiarism-checking programs, especially Turnitin.com. In this remediation, the purpose of systemic reform is not education but control—control of the duplicitous cheater. Page 242This control can be instigated through dire warnings in institutional policies about the punishment for plagiarism, striking fear into the hearts of the would-be plagiarists. It can then be enforced by compelling students to “submit”—and here the dual meaning of that word is significant—to submit their work to an online plagiarism-checking service. McGill University in 2003 went so far as to require that all students in all classes submit all their papers to Turnitin.com before they would be graded. Writing in the journal Computers and Composition, Bill Marsh describes some of the implications:
[I]n remediating submitted papers, Turnitin.com introduces, as ethical technology, an ethical drug test to which all participants are subjected. Whether guilty or innocent under prevailing ethical codes and textual ownership laws, writers who undergo the test see their writing produced in particular ways by the Turnitin.com remediation machine. In submitting their papers, writers submit to the color-coded reconstruction of their texts and, more profoundly, their identities as writers, insofar as the originality report frames every submission in terms of its program-driven assessment of similarity. (434)
The presence of Turnitin.com as the for-profit consequence of the “duplicitous cheat” frame is repeatedly reinforced in news stories, which directly or indirectly refer to the product as a “cure” (and use its founder as a source) for the problems caused by plagiarism; yet its prescription is to strip from students not only their “identity,” but also their agency as individual authors, actually undermining the very education that those concerned about plagiarism are trying to “protect.”
We endorse the need for institutions to establish clear, fair policies on plagiarism. However, we also understand that these policies must derive from nuanced frames for understanding plagiarism, students, the purpose of writing instruction, and education itself. As our analysis of the appropriations from the USDA fact sheet illustrates, textual practices always exist within specific contexts and reflect the values of those contexts. Textual education needs to draw on the rhetorical savvy and analytic skills that our students have developed from their interactions with a variety of on- and offline genres and rhetorical communities. To be sure, these genres and communities may diverge from the dominant academic model of textual ownership and attribution; nevertheless, analyzing and appreciating their textual conventions can contribute to a greater respect for and more successful participation in the textual values that the academy valorizes.
These textual values inform “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism,” the Page 2432003 best-practices document to which we referred earlier (see CWPA, “Defining”). That statement says that one responsibility of administrators is “publicizing policies and expectations for conducting ethical research, as well as procedures for investigating possible cases of academic dishonesty and its penalties.” The document also calls on instructors to teach “the conventions for citing documents and acknowledging sources in their field, and allowing students to practice these skills.”
At the same time, the CWPA document urges caution in the adoption and use of automated plagiarism-checking programs: “Although such services may be tempting, they are not always reliable. Furthermore, their availability should never be used to justify the avoidance of responsible teaching methods such as those described in this document.” The word temptation here is significant. The temptation of automated plagiarism-checking programs to teachers parallels the temptation of paper mills to students. Both are typically driven by panic. Students may resort to purchased term papers when they are confused or disengaged. Instructors may turn to Turnitin for similar reasons, when they have given a generic assignment or when they don’t work with their students during the writing process. And just as students’ use of term paper sites positions them to prevent the learning that the assignment was designed to foster, so the use of automated plagiarism-checking programs typically positions instructors to sidestep the instruction in writing that students need if they are to make nuanced, ethical decisions in the wide range of textual situations in which they will find themselves. The use of automated plagiarism-checking programs perpetuates a frame that reduces the objective of instruction to preventing, detecting, and punishing plagiarism instead of helping students analyze and participate in the practices of writing for the various contexts in which they write. The use of automated plagiarism-checking programs elides analysis of textual practices in specific contexts—the very study that should be at the core of instruction in written communication.
All writers are always in a developmental trajectory; writing is always intertextual; a variety of rhetorical and pragmatic forces work against attribution of sources; the use of texts is a complex act that is steeped in the conventions (disciplinary, behavioral, and otherwise) of academe; and the sanctioned academic expectations for attribution are often applied unevenly, even by experienced, ethical writers. Most urgently needed are educational efforts that give students experience in applying the skills and practices they need in order to do their own work in a wide range of situations.
The challenge, then, is to escape the limitations reflected and perpetuated Page 244by the frames surrounding media representations of students, technology, and plagiarism, and reframe the ways that educators—and writing instructors specifically—talk about conventions of textual practice. We recommend the CWPA’s “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism” document as a starting point for instructors and institutions. It describes educational practices within the frames of the developing student writer and the variability of writing situations and textual expectations.
Institutions that act upon this reframing would not just reform institutional policy but also pedagogical methods. This would involve faculty development workshops that are focused not on detecting or preventing plagiarism but on creating a classroom environment in which students feel able to and motivated to do the assigned work. It also could involve public events—public within the classroom, the writing program, the institution, or the community—that celebrate outstanding student writing.
Teaching citation conventions is a largely technical enterprise; one either has or has not correctly cited a source. Reforming institutional policy is largely procedural, regardless of how contested that procedure may be. But reframing the discussion of plagiarism to focus on pedagogy that engages students in a study of genres and texts in specific contexts is central to real change both in the frame around, and the incidence of, plagiarism in academic settings. To be sure, this is a messy, open-ended enterprise and as a result is often neglected as a response to concerns about plagiarism. Yet if educators can successfully teach critical reading and citation conventions, revise our institutional policies so that they don’t include misuse of sources in the definition of plagiarism, and create pedagogies of mentored engagement in course materials, the need for control mechanisms such as Turnitin.com will shrink to insignificance.
1. Stories selected for this analysis were published between February and July 2005 and indexed in the Lexis-Nexis Academic database. Using the search terms plagiarism and students, we selected the first two screens’ worth of stories excluding international and business-oriented publications.
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Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA). “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: WPA Statement on Best Policies.” Council of Writing Program Administrators, January 2003. http://www.wpacouncil.org/positions/index.html, consulted January 10, 2006.
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