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Plagiarism

Posted by samgr on January 9, 2007

[Note: This entry will be a bit more formal and less opinionated, since I’m writing it as a writing sample for an internship that I’m applying for.]

There has been no shortage of high-profile plagiarism cases in the last few years. Most recently, novelist Ian McEwan was accused of lifting passages in his novel Atonement from a memoir by Lucilla Andrews. As usual, a debate has followed these accusations, dealing with the possible definition and seriousness of literary plagiarism. McEwan has been defended in print by several other authors, including novelist Thomas Pynchon. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, Pynchon wrote that McEwan did nothing that was not fundamental to the normal process of writing:

“Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the Internet until, with luck, we can begin to make a few things of our own up. To discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know can be put into a story where it will do some good can hardly be classed as a felonious act– it is simply what we do.”

Thomas Pynchon, Words for Ian McEwan, Daily Telegraph, December 6 2006.

McEwan’s is only the most recent of a host of related cases. Others who have recently found themselves in similar controversies include historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan, to name a very few.

In reaction to these recent and well-known instances of plagiarism — as well as the controversy over what exactly constitutes plagiarism — author, judge, and law professor Richard A. Posner has written a book called The Little Book of Plagiarism, analyzing the problem and attempting to create a workable definition of what is and is not plagiarism. The book will not be out until January 16th, but it has already been accused of overly politicizing the issue. In a New York Times review of the book, Charles McGrath writes that Posner is soft on cases of legal plagiarism, but hard on academic cases. According to McGrath, Posner sees the world of academia as dominated by the left, and claims that professors are unwilling to crack down on plagiarism because “the left is uncomfortable with ideas of individual creativity and ownership.”

Books and college essays are not the only places where plagiarism is occuring. The internet has certainly made searching for and copying other people’s words easier than ever before. Blog plagiarism — or the appropriation of other people’s blog entries — has become a problem, even though the motivation behind this type of plagiarism can be more difficult to understand. Helped out by the internet, plagiarism can pop up in some unexpected places. Political blog Lakeshore Laments revealed that Wisconsin Congressman Steve Kagan’s website ripped off much of its layout and text from the website of Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry. Perhaps even more surprising, pastors have increasingly taken advantage of the internet to find sermons online and present them as their own words. Christian blogger Tim Challies discusses the implications of this in an entry on sermon plagiarism:

A pastor who plagiarizes sermons is clearly not fulfilling his primary responsibility. He is not investing time and effort in studying the Word, in understanding the Word, and in helping others understand what God has taught him. Furthermore, he is being unethical in allowing his congregation to believe that the sermons he delivers are his own work. I don’t think it is always wrong to preach sermons written by another person. I heard of a pastor who preached a series called “Sermons I Wish I’d Written.” He did not try to pass these sermons off as his own, but simply wanted to provide his congregation with what he considered some of history’s greatest sermons. Surely this is far different from a person who preaches those same sermons while pretending that he has written them himself.

Tim Challies, Plagiarism in the Pulpit, Challies.com, November 16, 2006.

There is also a blog devoted specifically to web plagiarism issues, plagiarismtoday.com. What do you think? Is plagiarism more of a problem than it used to be? Is the definition of plagiarism that we use today still useful and accurate for the way things work in the information age?

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One Response to “Plagiarism”

  1. Roxie said

    This is really interesting, Sam!
    I’ve thought a lot about plagiarism after all the craziness that happened at Harvard over the past 5 years(in addition to what you mentioned, there was also Charles Ogletree, who was accused of plagiarism in his book All Deliberate Speed ). I think that it’s time for academic institutions to have a big, open discussion about plagiarism that takes into account two facts of modern academic discourse:

    a) The number of primary and sources that one can consult for research has grown astronomically, due both to the proliferation of journals and texts over time and the technologies available for accessing them.

    b) Accordingly, search technology has advanced to the point where it is much easier to assess if a paper or argument is original in substance and in form. Such a search can be conducted either by an individual surveying the literature to assess whether his/her argument is original, or by a reviewer or professor to see if any plagiarism has occurred.

    Given this new level of access to digital source material, I think that there needs to be a new and explicit set of expectations for how research projects should proceed, how they should be checked before publishing, and what sort of transgression plagiarism actually is. I don’t think that anyone can reasonably expect to steal someone else’s significant published work and pass it off as his own. Nowadays, when reputable academics are accused of plagiarism, they often respond that they simply made an error in their note-taking (which, given the proliferation of available sources, the competitive pressures of academia, and the division of labor in research, isn’t very surprising). This response often falls on deaf ears, however, and accidental failure to properly attribute a quote or inadequate paraphrasing can result in scandal, loss of prestige, and even job termination. As someone who has been devastatingly confused by citation guidelines in my own research and frustrated while trying to explain to college freshmen the difference between academic theft and sloppy citations, I think it’s time to revamp expectations for research and formatting source citations.

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