Plagiarism 101

30 September 2008 at 5:30 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

Famous Plagiarists.com opens its politics website with Joseph Biden, currently running for Vice President of the United States of America.

Newsbusters.org features a recent article by Tom Blumer citing New York Times reporting on various times Biden was caught plagiarizing from Neil Kinnock, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Hubert Humphrey.

Plagiarism is big news.

Bothered by her conscience, an American, who is an Obama fan, asked me if plagiarism is such a big deal. After all, how can she vote for a presidential candidate who chooses a plagiarist for his running mate?

As a teacher, my answer is an absolute yes. Plagiarism is an absolute no-no, as far as students are concerned.

Since I am bound by school regulations to fail any student that plagiarizes and since I do not want my students to fail, I make sure that no one can plagiarize in my class. What I do is, throughout the term, I ask my students to write some pages of their term papers in class, while I look over their shoulders, making comments and asking them to revise right there and then. I collect their papers in stages, asking them to type everything out in term paper form only from the drafts they have written in class or submitted earlier.

As a scholar, my answer is a qualified yes. I am often asked to serve on discipline, awards, or similar boards, where the employment of a teacher or the granting of an award depends on whether an article has been plagiarized.

Why qualified? Let us look at the commonly-accepted definitions of plagiarism.

One of the simplest explanations comes from the website of Washington College in Maryland, which actually just quotes at length from Michael Harvey’s The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing (Hackett, 2003).

According to Harvey, plagiarism includes the following:

“1. Quoting material without attribution. The most obvious kind of plagiarism.

“2. Passing off another’s idea as your own, even if it’s been reworded. Changing an original’s wording doesn’t avoid plagiarism. The underlying idea of plagiarism is unacknowledged borrowing of ideas, not specific words.

“3. Imitating a passage’s structure or argument without attribution. Suppose a source presents an assertion and three supporting points. If you adopt that particular structure, including the particular examples or supporting points, you need to provide a citation to the original. This holds even if you substantially revise the wording.

“4. Concealing the extent to which you’ve borrowed from a text or other source. Citing a specific passage in a work doesn’t give you license to draw on the rest of the work without citation. This can be the nastiest kind of plagiarism because it’s so sneaky.”

Although Harvey makes perfect sense if you are talking to students, he is not completely right when you are no longer in the classroom. The key to plagiarism is fooling people that the words you utter or write are your own and not someone else’s.

This is the dictionary definition of plagiarism: “the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.”

If you do not represent the language and thoughts as your own, it is not plagiarism.

For example, if you said, “You must treat others the way you want them to treat you,” you are obviously copying the Golden Rule. But this is not plagiarism because everybody knows the Golden Rule, and no one is fooled that you thought of it all by yourself.

Similarly, if you said, “The best thing to do when somebody says something bad about you in the office is to ignore it and even say something good about that person,” you are just paraphrasing the biblical advice to turn the other cheek. Since most Christians are expected to have read the Bible or at least to have heard the passage in sermons, this is not plagiarism.

On a very sophisticated level, when a writer uses a passage from a famous writer and the work is meant to be read by specialists (as happens with literary theory), there can be no plagiarism. For example, if you wrote in an article in an ISI literature journal that the words in a poem have meanings that deliberately contradict the meaning of the whole poem, you are merely repeating the thoughts of famous critics such as Cleanth Brooks and Jacques Derrida. Everyone reading an ISI literature journal has read Brooks and Derrida, so there is no danger that the thought will be attributed to you. This is one reason, by the way, that there are relatively very few footnotes in high-level literary theory journals.

(First published in The Philippine Star, 11 & 18 September 2008.)

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