28 February 2018

What I Don't Get About Plagiarism

I have an unseemly confession to make. I don't get some of the hype about plagiarism.

I feel slightly less nervous about admitting this now, than I would have during my paper-writing student days. Nevertheless, as far as most of the academic community is concerned, an opinion like this puts me morally on par with someone who kicks puppies or steals candy from small children, so it's with some apprehension that I share it.

Sometime ago I read Stanley Fish's "Plagiarism Is Not a Big Moral Deal", and although part of me is loathe to admit it, it resonated with me. Fish's main point is that copying another's work should be considered a faux pas within the academic community only. From one incidence of plagiarism, we shouldn't extrapolate that someone is a crooked person devoid of conscience. There are many reasons for this: For one thing, the whole idea of intellectual property is a value held in a rather limited sphere; for another thing, the lines separating Plagiarism from Not Plagiarism aren't as cut and dried as some of us would like to think.

I can definitely see the sense in this. For example, the rules in my grad school student handbook defined plagiarism as using, without proper attribution, "three words in sequence" or "similar sounding sentence structure".

Well, "three words in sequence" is pretty dicey if you ask me, and "similar sentence structure", even more so. The syntax of English has very finite limitations. There are only just so many ways you can construct a sentence, and there are only just so many people who are going to be able to lay claim to their particular "three words in sequence" before virtually everything that can be said has been said (in a grammatically correct fashion, anyway). Also, the more arcane and erudite your topic, the more limited your vocabulary will be for describing it.

Then there's the MLA handbook, which exempts "common knowledge" from the citation requirement. But then of course you have to question what constitutes common knowledge -- and that's yet another area in which it seems that each person's view is their own.

The giant elephant in the room that everyone knows but few have the guts to admit is: there aren't really any original ideas! And -- thanks to the proliferation of printed works these days -- we're quickly running out of original wording with which to express those not-exactly-original ideas! No matter how cleverly you think you've phrased something, you're sure to find somebody else who's said the same thing in almost the same way. Even now, nothing I'm saying is brand new. I can guarantee you I haven't intentionally copied it from someone else, but I can't guarantee that someone, somewhere, has never said something similar. In fact, I can almost guarantee the opposite.

My feeling about the whole thing is that there is plagiarizing, and then there is plagiarizing. I just don't feel the same way about three words in sequence or similar syntax as I do about copying an entire paragraph, or turning in a research paper bought online (which, for the record, I do not think is okay, if anyone is wondering). I do believe anyone caught doing this should have to rewrite the assignment, because if they're using that much of someone else's writing, they've failed to demonstrate their own mastery of the concept. However, is "three words in sequence" or "similar sentence structure" evidence of such failure? I personally don't think it's as easy to make a case for that.

It's also hard for me to stand by the idea that if somebody's writing sounds like anybody else's who has ever been printed, their academic career should be over and they should live in infamy for the rest of their days. (See? That phrase -- "live in infamy" -- isn't mine. I think Franklin Roosevelt said it first, but you never know, do you?) I also wouldn't threaten someone with spiritual failure, as in this quote written by one of my college professors in his syllabus:

"You are students at a Bible College and you are expected to maintain the highest degree of integrity. If you do not, you may be caught and suffer consequences from the school. If I discover academic dishonesty, I am required to report it to the Dean of Academic Affairs. Even if you are not caught, however, you will suffer consequences in your life. My deepest concern is for your own personal growth and spiritual well being. I trust you to be honest, do your own work, and pursue excellence -- not for me, but for the Lord..."

So whereas at a secular university, turning in written work that looks just a bit too reminiscent of someone else's may earn you an F or even get you expelled, at Bible college you get that and then some. At Bible college, you also get a mini-sermon about the slow and steady erosion of your soul. "Plagiarism will not be tolerated" was the main point here; I'm not sure why a simple statement to that effect wouldn't have sufficed. If guilt is your motivator, then you've already lost the battle.

And then there are those plagiarism checkers online that you can use before submitting an assignment just in case you've duplicated someone else's work totally unawares. I use a free word counter online to check the word count of some of my blog posts, and no matter what, it always flags me for plagiarism. Every time.

And I'm like, um... what? How do I copy someone else's work that I've never even read, or maybe never even heard of? If this were a case of a teacher checking my work for plagiarism, how would I prove that I've never heard of that other author? And -- what I'm most interested to know -- how would this make me the sneaky, dishonest person who will "suffer consequences in my life", as noted above?

As I said before, I suspect a lot of this issue is simply hype.

It's well known that the modern, Western view of plagiarism has a lot to do with our cultural view of knowledge in general. A great many other cultures see knowledge as a communally shared resource, not something to stake a claim on and defend like prospectors in the California gold rush. I am not saying that all views are equally valid, necessarily. But how might the conversation about "academic honesty" and "integrity" be different in a culture where people don't expect to be personally credited for each particular turn of phrase? Should we simply go ahead and conclude that all those people are okay with dishonesty, while we are not? I wouldn't feel comfortable making that assumption. Is it possible that we've elevated a cultural value to the place of moral absolute? I don't know, but I do think it's a question that deserves to be asked.

The thing that makes me the most uncomfortable with defending intellectual property as a moral issue is: Not a single one of us has anything -- any idea, any phrase, any way of expressing a thought -- that we created out of thin air. The idea that you think is all your very own, you got from somewhere. Ownership of an idea isn't in the least like ownership of a tangible object. I have to wonder if it's our pride and snobbery, not our moral scruples and love of honesty, that lead us to act like it is.

Feel free to quote me on any of this, of course. But don't feel obligated to include a citation. Because, as you know, it's all been said before... somewhere.

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