Plagiarism or Collaboration?

Another contribution to the growing debate on what constitutes plagiarism, and how to interpret it, in a new age of Web-enabled learning and Web-based publishing and collaboration, has appeared in the form of a new book titled, Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age, and edited by Caroline Eisner and Martha Vicinus. The editors of the volume were recently interviewed by Scott Jaschik in the April 3, 2008, issue of Inside Higher Ed. One of the more significant paragraphs in the article for me was this one:

“Gilbert Omenn, points out, theft of ideas rather than words is far more serious in the sciences. Ironically, the policy of anonymous reviewing may make it easier for a senior reviewer to steal some of the best ideas from, say, an NIH proposal written by a junior researcher. Many years ago I was involved in the case of an MFA student who had used several phrases from another student’s poem; in this case, a dozen words seemed to constitute plagiarism. Law school students are taught to use their own words when discussing legal cases and writing up briefs, but once they graduate and join a law firm, they turn to past precedents and use the wording from previous cases. These distinctions can be very confusing to students. I think we need to be much more explicit about the context and audience for whom we are writing; this will help students who often think that their only audience is their professor.”

Indeed, the lines of distinction do become blurred.

Cutting and pasting from a single source, without attribution, meets most definitions of plagiarism, but the problem for me is that it shows laziness and disinterest in the subject matter. Of course, the reasons may in fact be neither, but the point again for me as a teacher is that the student should then make some hard decisions about where they are and where they want to be. If too many competing obligations mean that they do not have time to do their work carefully and to nurture their own interests and show curiosity about the world, then they should be settlling their competing obligations and deferring advanced study for a time when they can make the most of it. They should be enchanted with producing knowledge, and the single-source example of what I call, as a shorthand, “lazy plagiarism”, shows the contrary.

But what about more complex and nuanced forms of plagiarism, those that involve use of a great many sources, with attribution to boot? Indeed, my university has a plagiarism policy that includes a very ambiguous notion of “insufficient paraphrasing”, without any clear guidelines of when something has been paraphrased enough, and even with full and precise attribution it still constitutes “plagiarism”. Now this is a policy that I find strains the patience and credulity of most colleagues and students. There is no “theft” here, and quite a lot of work on the part of the student. Indeed it forms the essence of most literature reviews. At some point, plagiarism becomes dialogue and collaboration, and we need to have enough sensitivity not to haul students before committees designed to exact penalties.

We also need to strongly challenge the sillier notions of plagiarism, such as “self-plagiarism” that are clearly derivative of contemporary capitalism’s copyright culture. I have been found guilty of this when preparing a recent set of articles–for a long time I worked from a single database of my own notes, and I am not surprised to see that I said the exact same thing the exact same way, about a given detail, event, etc. Here “self-plagiarism” was raised by a publisher not in the sense of “theft” but of copyright violations — that I would need the permission of the other, previous, publishers for me to use my own words. I have become the non-owning owner of my own words.

For those interested in the volume, here is the Table of Contents:

Caroline Eisner and Martha Vicinus 1

Choosing Metaphors
Jessica Litman 13
On Ethical Issues in Publishing in the Life Sciences
Gilbert S. Omenn 27
Reviewing the Author-Function in the Age of Wikipedia
Amit Ray and Erhardt Graeff 39
Internet and Open-Access Publishing in Physics Research
Gordon Kane 48
Do Thesis Statements Short-Circuit Originality in Students’ Writing?
Anne Berggren 53
Cloud Gate: Challenging Reproducibility
Jeff Ward 64

Genres as Forms of In(ter)vention
Anis Bawarshi 79
When Copying Is Not Copying: Plagiarism and French Composition Scholarship
Christiane Donahue 90
The Dynamic Nature of Common Knowledge
Amy England 104
Instinctual Ballast: Imitation and Creative Writing
Christina Pugh 114
The Anthology as a Literary Creation: On Innovation and Plagiarism in Textual Collections
Christopher M. Kuipers 122
Economies of Plagiarism: The i-Map and Issues of Ownership in Information Gathering
Kim Walden and Alan Peacock 133
“Fair Use,” Copyright Law, and the Composition Teacher
Martine Courant Rife 145

History and the Disciplining of Plagiarism
Michael Grossberg 159
Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement: The Costs of Confusion
Laura J. Murray 173
Plagiarism, a Turnitin Trial, and an Experience of Cultural Disorientation
Lisa Emerson 183
Academic Plagiarism and the Limits of Theft
Stefan Senders 195
Insider Writing: Plagiarism-Proof Assignments
Lynn Z. Bloom 208
Plagiarism across Cultures: Is There a Difference?
Joel Bloch 219
Framing Plagiarism
Linda Adler-Kassner, Chris M. Anson,
and Rebecca Moore Howard 231

Selected Bibliography 247
Contributors 253
Index 259

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