Many students these days are amazed—I mean, truly baffled—when confronted with their own unethical behavior. Whether they’ve plagiarized material already published by someone else, or invented sources and quotations outright, I’ve found in more then 10 cumulative years of teaching at both institutions that more often than not the fabricators just don’t get that what they did was wrong. They’re more stunned than embarrassed; they’re more indignant than repentant. Looking into their eyes, I just don’t see the kind of flushed, visceral shame that you might expect from such acts. Unethical behavior is a huge problem on most college campuses, and although faculty and administrators are doing their best to tighten regulations, plagiarism, in particular, is on the rise.
Why, is still something of a mystery. The usual theory among journalism educators has to do with the cut-and-paste and sampling culture of the Internet, which has forever eroded boundaries between “original” and stolen work. But it seems to me that something more insidious is happening here. Could it be, that even when faced with dictionary descriptions of “plagiarism” and “fabrication”—terms that are discussed in most journalism classes at the beginning of each semester—some students simply agree to disagree?
Both students and faculty are passing around links to EssayTyper, a website that opens with the simple prompt: “”Oh no! It’s finals week and I have to finish my [blank] essay immediately.” At first, it looks like an actual paper mill, perhaps a stop for desperate students to finish that last essay. Instead, it’s a “magic” word processor that pulls information straight out of Wikipedia and into a pseudo processor as the user presses any keys at all.
Thanks to once & always FYWP instructor Andrew Ladd for sharing these thoughts on plagiarism.
Last year, one scientific journal publisher had to reject 23% of its submissions because they turned out to be plagiarized. The figure sounds so unbelievably high that if didn’t itself come from the renowned scientific journal Nature, I’d be tempted not to believe it. 23%! Among degree-holding, bona fide academics! And this wasn’t an aberration, either: the same publisher had to reject 10% and 6% of submissions from two of its other journals for the same reason. Either real academics plagiarize a lot more than students do, or I am seriously bad at spotting plagiarists.
There’s plenty more to think about in the Nature article, too, beyond those staggering percentages. Like: journal publishers run submissions, without thinking twice, through the same kind of plagiarism-detection software that, when applied to student papers, routinely generates heated discussions of trust and ethics and responsibility. Or: the admission by the director of journal services at Elsevier that “there are only so many different ways you can describe how to run a gel… Plagiarism of results or the discussion is a greater concern.” This neatly draws a distinction I think most writing teachers would also make, though perhaps less blithely: it’s at most a venial sin to omit quotes around background info taken from Wikipedia, but taking credit for someone else’s ideas (the “results” of an opinion paper) is far more serious.
What I really began to wonder as I read this article, though, was why we make such a big deal out of plagiarism at all. When you’re a career academic it’s easy to get wrapped up in the exacting standards of perfectly attributed intellectual discourse. But clearly there are situations—like describing how to run a gel—when plagiarism is a useful shortcut that doesn’t really compromise intellectual integrity. In any case, for every job I’ve ever had outside academia, plagiarism, or at least patch-writing, has been a matter of course. Frequently, in fact, it’s been an essential duty. Even positions I’ve taken billed as “writing” jobs involve massaging other sources into a consistent corporate voice without attribution just as much as producing original prose.
And the reality is, no matter how much we might want our students to become prolific, creative geniuses, some of them are going to end up getting desk jobs just like that, where the ability to plagiarize convincingly is a necessary skill. So perhaps we’re doing a disservice by treating it as a crime across the board. Perhaps, instead, we need to acknowledge that in most “genres” beyond the academic it’s a regular part of the writing process—and that a balanced writing education should teach students not just how to avoid it, but how, in appropriate situations, to do it better.
With an unprecedented amount of available text, our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours.
The prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term “unoriginal genius” to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined another term, “moving information,” to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.
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