Plagiarism as toilet training

By didbygraham

Plagiarism has been a hot topic in staff rooms over recent years, and there has been a flurry of interest in the social media over the last day or two. Charles Halton has a nicely provocative piece Authors or Criminals? as well as attempting to set felines among columbida:

What’s all the fuss about?

We live in a very odd culture that extends ownership rights to non-tangible things like ideas and words.  However, these are relatively modern inventions.  Within the ancient world there was no such thing as “intellectual property” or even “authorship” as we understand it.  Literature was composed not by individuals but by communities–whether these communities were sitting around campfires recounting stories real or fiction or in between or whether the communities were scholars writing for other scholars.  Within the ancient world literature developed over time and subsequent generations of composers used previous work in order to fashion their own accounts.  Hardly any scholar put their name on their work (there are a couple exceptions of acrostic poems which spell out a scribe’s name).

All this fuss about plagiarism has me thinking–are students merely reverting to an ancient view of authorship?

This post has generated a fascinating discussion of “ancient” authorship and its conventions, the comment thread is well worth a look! But I want to address that final question: “All this fuss about plagiarism has me thinking–are students merely reverting to an ancient view of authorship?”

Firstly: I am thinking of students operating in a Western academic context, I am aware that different considerations apply to students of other cultures operating within those cultural settings. “You cannot step into the same river twice.”1 Culture has moved on and so has technology, in a world of Zotero the habits of Baruch are no longer applicable.

Secondly: Plagiarism is a matter of respect. If I present another’s words or ideas as if they were mine I fail to respect them treating their work as of no value to me. I also fail to respect myself, for by failing to distinguish my own contribution to the conversation, or indeed situate it within a conversation, I suggest it is of no value.

Thirdly: Plagiarism is a matter of socialisation. There ain’t no such animal as a “digital native” we all, including your twelve-year-old, learned to speak video and audio we have been socialised into these modes of discourse just as we were once toilet trained. We can all no matter how young or old (within limits, but these are limits to all aspects of academic life) be socialised into citing our sources, just as we can all (again with only fairly extreme limits) be socialised into not depositing our excreta here and there as the urge takes us!

There are no digital natives. Indeed on the issues of plagiarism and citation, our classes commonly have students between late teens and seventies, with the majority between twenties and fifties, I have most problems with those in the middle of this range. The young are eager and willing to learn, the old also (or at that stage of life they would not have undertaken a course of formal education). It’s some of the the middle aged, fat and forty, fat in mind not necessarily body, who won’t learn! But, if you won’t learn, then you fail. End of story :(

  1. Heraclitus of Ephesus, Fragment 41; Quoted by Plato in Cratylus []

2 comments on “Plagiarism as toilet training

  1. Charles Halton

    Glad it was provocative as intended. I agree with all your points–if one of my students turned one of these purchased papers to me they would fail and I’d probably forward the matter to the dean of students.

  2. Heather

    I completely agree, but was reminded of an interesting experience I had recently.

    I wanted to put a Dr. Seuss image (this one – http://vaughndavis.posterous.com/google-wave-and-the-star-bellied-sneetche) onto a baby-carrying sling I was making for a friend. I blew it up, printed it out and made stencils of the solid blocks of colour, but then filled in all the black bits by hand. I was amazed how putting each line in just the right place built the emotion of the creatures, and how getting it wrong spoilt it. I started to learn a bit about how to make pictures in the style of Dr. Seuss.

    It reminded me of hearing that in the Rennaissance apprentice artists learnt to paint by copying the works of the Masters. So, whilst handing in someone else’s work is rude and teaches you nothing, maybe it would be a good idea to get students to copy out excellent essays so that they can come to understand how good work is constructed.