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into the same river twice.”1 Culture has moved on and so has technology, in a world of Zotero the habits of Baruch are no longer applicable.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 []

How to avoid reading books (read effectively)

Good students avoid reading books. They read effectively. They read less words, but learn more. To explain this I need to start by describing how average students read, so you will understand what I mean.

Head scratching by a r b o Many of us read wrong!

The average student faced with a book reads it. They begin at the beginning, or more likely at chapter one. As we shall see this is never the right place to start. They then slowly – but only sometimes surely – plough through until, with a sigh, they finish the chapter. Little information and few ideas are retained, the words have mysteriously passed from eye to brain, only to drain out through the pores of the skin to join the other lost words in linguistic limbo. Such reading is the next best thing to useless. Better to read effectively. This time spent in “uselessness” could have been invested more wisely. For “wasted time” often pays surprising dividends, but time spent merely reading a textbook seldom does!

Having described how one ought not to read books, and hinted at why, let’s think about how to read effectively. The aim of the smart student is to read as little as possible but gain the maximum benefit from that reading.

I’ve always been a slow reader, I try to cope by “reading smarter”.

One way I do this is to “waste time” overviewing something before reading it:


The contents list should give you a fair idea of what the book is about and how it is organised. A few moments1 spent on the contents list lets you make intelligent guesses about where to find what. You might even join a conversation about the book without sounding totally stupid.

The foreword (before the first chapter) often tells you what the author thought their book was about. That’s vital reading! Likewise, the conclusion (Like detective stories, serious textbooks demand you read the ending early on!) should let you write a summary of the book in a few sentences.

Go on, write the summary down! At the worst you can look back at it later, and shake your head over how naive you were before you understood the full complexity of the topic ;-)


Look first at beginnings, endings and headings to try to get an idea of what the each chapter is about and how the different parts fit in.

Then skip through the material. Do not actually “read” yet, but look at a bit here and there. This will firm up your idea of what the chapter is about, and where it is going. By now you should be able to join a conversation about the chapter and sound like you read it!

Essential “reading“: they say a picture is worth 1000 words. (1Kw in metric measures.) Well-chosen pictures are worth 1Kw! Though badly chosen pictures are worth-less. (However, they are fun to look at, so worth wasting time on ;-) Charts, tables and diagrams are usually (even when badly done) worth at least 1Kw – so spend time on them!

At this stage you should be able to write a brief summary of the chapter. Yes, just like you did for the whole book earlier.

Moby’s important reading by ktylerconk The effective way to read textbooks is the way we “read” newspapers or magazines!

Important “bits”

Then read carefully the bits that you think matter most. See, now you are reading effectively. Seldom (using this approach) will you actually “read” all of a chapter, but you will get a good idea of what is in it – often better than if you had scanned each of the words!

I find if I try to read page by page it goes in my eyes and out my ears. Reading that way, I forget almost all the content five minutes after I saw the page. Such reading is a waste of time – don’t do it!

Sometimes with the way of reading I have described you read some parts twice. But they will be chapters or sections that really matter. Sometimes you will end up not reading some pages at all. However, you will know where they are if you need them “one day”!

In summary

Do a survey of the book, or chapter. Play with the material till you know what it contains, and where things are. Only after this, actually read carefully the “bits” that matter to you.

Congratulations, if you practice reading like this you will be reading effectively. More results for your effort!

  1. 1mo is shorter than 1min but much longer than 10secs. []