Plagiarism no big deal?

It's just a convention that students aren't supposed to plagiarize.  There's nothing really wrong with it.  I hasten to add, that's not my view--it's the view of NYT columnist Stanley Fish--
Plagiarism is like that; it’s an insider’s obsession.  If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game  you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no.  But if you’re a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some) and if you’re a politician it may not occur to you, as it did not at one time to Joe Biden, that you’re doing anything wrong when you appropriate the speech of a revered statesman.
And if you’re a student, plagiarism will seem to be an annoying guild imposition without a persuasive rationale  (who cares?); for students, learning the rules of plagiarism is worse than learning the irregular conjugations of a foreign language. It takes years, and while a knowledge of irregular verbs might conceivably come in handy if you travel, knowledge of what is and is not plagiarism in this or that professional practice is not something that will be of very much use to you unless  you end up becoming a member of the profession yourself.  It follows that students who never quite get the concept right are by and large not committing a crime; they are just failing to become acclimated to the conventions of the little insular world they have, often through no choice of their own, wandered into. It’s no big moral deal; which doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that plagiarism shouldn’t be punished — if you’re in our house, you’ve got to play by our rules — just that what you’re punishing is a breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe.
Amazingly enough, this professor and former academic dean does not understand the purpose of student assignments. A book or magazine article or encyclopedia entry is supposed to inform or provide entertainment, so you can imagine different rules regarding originality and attribution, but that's not the point of a student paper.   Students write papers in order to demonstrate what they've learned, what their own skills are, etc.  When students plagiarize, they receive grades that reflect another person's knowledge and skills.  And then their transcripts tell people downstream the wrong thing.  Plagiarizing students wind up with jobs and scholarships and positions in colleges and graduate schools, etc., that aren't merited by their own knowledge and skills.  It's not fair to competitors whose grades do reflect their knowledge and skills.  And it's not fair to the public either, because we don't want the most skilled plagiarists becoming our teachers and doctors and lawyers. We want people with the requisite skills.

Um, isn't all this completely obvious? But to go on in the same vein..."Not fair" is a moral concept. Nothing to do with conjugating irregular verbs.  Not a matter of arbitrary conventions.  QED

While it's obviously a moral problem to plagiarize--a crime, so to speak--what's the appropriate punishment?  Do academics punish too much because within their own world originality has such tremendous importance?  Had Fish raised that question, he would have been on firmer ground, but then I guess he wouldn't have been earning his keep as resident academic contrarian and provocateur at the NYT website.


Faust said...

It's funny, I've been reading Adrian Johns "Piracy" (great book!) for professional reasons, and I think that Fish raises issues that are more complex than one might think.

For me the important bit is from an article he links to:

"It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism."

I can't here go into the astounding complexity of the history intellectual property, but suffice it to say that questions around intellectual property, including plagiarism, are more complicated than one might think.

I think our current academic understanding of plagiarism pretty much goes directly to Kant's essay "On the wrongfulness of the unauthorized publication of books" something particularly fascinating because there he suggests that the moral prohibition has nothing to do with property at all but rather the fact that mediation potentially mixes authorship with mediation. Or as Johns paraphrases Kant "it was a form of ventriloquism: the pirate hijacked another person's voice."

NOW we take this for granted. But historically this was something that emerged from wars over how to integrate publishing into culture.

I take Fish as suggesting that these historical developments are as ad-hoc as the rules of a game. Perhaps that goes too far, but they are certainly more ad-hoc than people realize.

Jean Kazez said...

I think he's failing to see that the academic context is completely different. A class essay's whole point is to develop and test the student's knowledge and skills. So it can't possibly make sense for the student to turn in another person's work and receive the grade the other person deserves. That's obviously unfair to students who do their own work and to others downstream.

In a publishing context, you can see how other rules could conceivably make sense, given other goals. I see how that could be complicated...

But in the classroom, everyone knows what the point of an assignment is, how grades are used, etc etc. Fancy points about publishing just don't carry over to academic plagiarism, and Mr. Fish ought to know that.

Faust said...

He does! He says:

"Whether there is something called originality or not, the two scholars who began their concluding chapter by reproducing two of my pages are professionally culpable. They took something from me without asking and without acknowledgment, and they profited — if only in the currency of academic reputation — from work that I had done and signed. That’s the bottom line and no fancy philosophical argument can erase it."

I think he's best viewed as pimping his Rortian view that the theoretical debates about this stuff hang free of our practices.

I see him as saying:

Theoretically concerns about plagiarism can be dissolved as an arbitrary conceit, but it doesn't matter because arbitrary conceits are fine if they promote flourishing forms of culture.

In the end he's just doing his Stanley Fish thing: gettin all sophistical about this or that topic.

I think the real juice here is all in the way the internet is changing ideas about identity and authorship and property and that Fish offers an analysis that doesn't help us much.

Jean Kazez said...

What about the paragraphs I quoted? He says students just have to learn the conventions, like they have to learn irregular verbs. That's all there is to the rule against student plagiarism.

The paragraph you quote more or less contradicts that, but he doesn't seem to have noticed the contradiction.

Faust said...

I don't think thinks he thinks he's contradiction himself, I think he takes his claims to be:

1. Plagarism is a breach of disciplinary decorum, and as such it is like any other breach of disciplinary decorum.
2. Disciplinary decorum is a function of cultural consensus, and has no reality outside of that.
3. There are other examples of cultural consenus promoting ideas that have no basis in fact, or at least no determinate basis in fact such as the "free" in free speech. (I take this to be a reference ot free will).
4. Therefore even though plagarism is not a big moral deal in the sense that moral realism might assert, we can still pursue it as a pragmatic matter.


Jean Kazez said...

When he talks about the scholars, there's an air of moral disapproval. "They took something from me without asking..." When he talks about students, he rejects the idea that plagiarism is a moral issue at all.

But anyway, my main point is that he fails to see that student plagiarism is in a class by itself, because of the purpose of assignments and the function of grades, etc. So his points about scholarship and journalism, etc., have no relevance. He could be right about that, and it would still be true that students are unfair to other students (etc, etc) when they plagiarize.

Rebecca said...

A lot of 'crimes' fall under the plagiarism heading.

Ghost writing - using someone else to write your paper (your quintessential example). Depending on how its done - its likely to be one of the harder ones to capture as well.

This 'using someone elses phrase' is considered the most common, and can be harshly marked with a terrible paraphrase, incorrect quotation marks... How about if lecturers consider you to have plagiarised from a non-cited publication? How does the student prove they didn't 'steal' the words?

I agree that cheating is immoral - though where I come up with problems is in the proof.

Why is it that a high school student, undergraduate, masters, Ph.D candidate could not have come up with something in and of themselves - and yet formulate it in such a way as to resemble a statement made by an 'expert', without having ever even read it?

Your comments on Mark Johnston brought me to this page, and its funny that I was only yesterday that I discussed identity issues in my undergrad tutorial, and then today found my idea (or at least very similar) had already been thought up - but I came up with the idea myself, having only read a bit of Kripke and formal identity statements. So, if I were to use what I developed, and my lecturer was aware of this very similar article - would I be accused of plagiarism, and how would I be able to respond? Its not inconceivable that this could happen on several occasions either - so even with '3 strikes' rules, I could (hypothetically) get sanctioned for something I didn't do. Do you give the benefit of the doubt? Ah, but then, how do you determine who's trustworthy?

Its one thing to want students to 'read widely and broadly' (even in a limited timespan) and 'stand on the shoulders of giants' (hmm... I have my doubts on this one, where are the giants? There are very few I'd give the metaphorical title to). You also expect analysis, and formulation of your own argument (not simply a regurgitated set of concepts) - and then tell a student that they're being warned, or sanctioned for plagiarism, because something similar came from a source not cited in an assignment, and its not expected that an 'x' (usually undergraduate) would have sufficient capability to come up with that idea.

So while I accept all your reasons for assessment (demonstration of learning, etc) and your negative outcomes (non-merit) - the issue is proof. Being a philosopher, this may come naturally. What is the requisite level of proof before accusations are made, and sanctions applied? How is truth determined?