A little plagiarism, a little book

February 19, 2007

“Plagiarize! Plagiarize!//Don’t let anything evade your eyes!”Tom Lehrer, Lobachevsky

“Oh, he just stole from me. I steal from everybody.” Attributed to Woody Guthrie by Pete Seeger (Together, with Arlo Guthrie, 1974)

“Plagiarism is the root of all culture.” Pete Seeger (1974 tour)

Internet files and other databases make plagiarism amazingly easy. College faculties debate how best to police against plagiarism. Students caught and kicked out appear befuddled at the academic death penalty, when all it takes is a couple of mouse clicks over a text prepared by a willing accomplice.

Federal judge, University of Chicago law professor and blogger Richard Posner wrote a small book on plagiarism. In fact, that’s its title, The Little Book of Plagiarism (Pantheon,116 pages, $10.95).

My policy in class is to challenge students when I find they’ve stolen someone else’s work. I go over attribution, footnoting and bibliographic listings, on a spoken assumption that they don’t know how to do it. They don’t like it, but they realize it’s better than expulsion. I’ve never had a student try it a second time (that I’ve caught).

Some younger students, in junior high and high school, say they do not understand why they may not simply cut and paste material from internet sources, but I suspect that is more defense than genuine lack of understanding. More than once these same students have later complained that other student’s “stole” their work. Plagiarism sometimes appears more clear when others steal from you.

In a review of Posner’s book in the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Kirsch wrote that Posner identified a key problem for society: What do we do when the stolen text improves the work? It’s the issue that Woody Guthrie knew and Pete Seeger stated: Borrowing good stuff is what culture is all about. In highly literate circles, the game is to make allusions to works that most people know, to relate to an already-established body of knowledge to shed light on other ideas.

Plagiarists, on the other hand, would shut off access to the broader body of the work of the originator – so the intent of the true plagiarizer is not to relate to previous works. Some plagiarizers want credit for the ideas, some student plagiarizers probably want credit only for the word count.

In the higher evil, plagiarism is not about stealing other people’s ideas. It’s about stealing the words without caring about the ideas. It is not that the plagiarizer covets the ideas too much, but rather that the plagiarizer is indifferent to the ideas, seeing only the individual trees and missing the forest.

That’s where the great danger lies as well. A forest is more than just the sum of the trees in it, as we only too late discovered with regard to ecosystems that depend on the various stages of forest growth, aging, decline, destruction and rebirth. An idea is worth more than the mere count of its words, or even the prima facie meaning of the words.

The sin of the plagiarizer is in not knowing what the plagiarizer steals.

And, with a tip of the old scrub brush to Let’s Play Math, we call your attention to a blog devoted to plagiarism issues, Plagiarism Today. Especially, you may want to take a look at the blog’s review of Posner’s book.

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