|21st Century Plagiarism
Moore’s Law (1965) predicted that chip speed and storage density will double every 18 months to two years. As prognostications go, Gordon Moore was dead-on so far and the implications of this trend for information flow are fantastic. When the rate of information flow is huge and increasing, we need to consider where all this new information will come from. Part of the answer appears to be that much of the data making up the quickening stream is recycled and duplicated. Some of that duplication involves duplicity, leading to what some commentators call a plague of plagiarism.
Whether plagiarism is pandemic or even significantly more frequent in this century than it was in the last is open to question. Yet, very recently some of the fundamental institutions that we rely on for maintaining the integrity of information have been scandalized with cases of plagiarism: academia, journalism, and government. Perhaps, even more scandalous is the relative indifference with which these cases are met. It is true that some cases have led to condemnations and resignations, but unlike the hapless student caught cheating, the high profile plagiarists often profit handsomely from their guile.
Academics stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the need to duly chastise students for plagiarism. A traditional (perhaps apocryphal) story told among graduate students at my alma mater involves an undergraduate who submitted a final project for a short story course, penned with the student’s signature and with the title “The Tell Tale Heart.” Presumably the student had sought a dusty and forgotten tome from the old stacks of the library on the theory that even an English teacher could not have read them all. Of course, the moral of this teaching tale is that we don’t need to read them all, just enough of the right ones. And which is more appalling about this case to educators, the student’s naked chicanery or gaping ignorance? I’ll wager that most academics from TA to emeritus have at least one plagiarism story to tell. We all laugh and shake our heads at the audacity of it.
Pulitzer prizewinning Harvard historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarizing portions of her book "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys" (1987) from at least three other books. Goodwin flatly denies the charges (Goodwin, 2002), though she later withdrew the book from circulation. Even a cursory examination of the passages and alleged sources provide sufficient basis to condemn a student who handed such a work in for a grade. Goodwin’s prestige has taken some blows, even though the scandals may have stimulated interest in her books.
While Blair’s stories were on weighty issues, even light journalism gave way to plagiarism when Mike Barnicle was caught using lines from a book by George Carlin in a Boston Globe column penned as Barnicle’s own. This flap revealed a long line of frauds and lifts performed by Barnicle (Mashberg, 1998).
The above are instances from a large number of plagiarism cases in academia
and journalism. It is important that academia and journalism are both
counted on to function as guardians of the integrity of the information
record. Academics, such as historians, research and write in accordance
with standards of the field. Despite the controversies about history,
we expect that historians will get some main facts right and provide relevant
contextual information that lead to interpretations of the past. Journalists
investigate and report of current history. We rely on journalism to reveal
important information about what is going on in the world right now.
Plagiarism is a fairly modern concept, being the marriage of the concept
of intellectual property with the concept of property rights. The contemporary
notion of plagiarism can be characterized;
An Astonishing Paradigm Case of Plagiarism
The remarkable and deplorable aspect of the British dossier is that it is an act of wholesale plagiarism. Much of the dossier is cut and pasted directly from the web, with spelling and grammatical errors intact. Large portions of a dissertation by former University of California student Ibrahim al-Marashi were copied into the dossier without attribution. The same is true for portions of articles from the Jane’s Intelligence Review as well as books.
The Dossier was appropriated directly from other authors without just
attribution and presented as a product of British intelligence and No.
10 Downing Street. These facts plainly fit the characterization of plagiarism
given above. The British Dossier is a clear case of plagiarism and the
Prime Minister’s office even admitted that the dissertation and
other sources were copied into the dissertation;
Three important points about the nature and impact of plagiarism arise
with the Downing Street spin to minimize the charge of plagiarism:
The British Dossier case is as clear a case of plagiarism as one could have. Just as some students will plagiarize by assembling chunks of text gleaned from the web into a somewhat presentable paper by paraphrasing parts and adding transitions, so did the British Government office create a mosaic of texts taken from the web (not a secret spy web, mind you, but the same sources that are open to everyone, including at the time Saddam Hussein). Just as the student conceals identities of the authors and elements of the text that reveal genuine authorship, the British Government office constructed a document out of different public sources, and by concealing the original authorship (as well as dates, unfavorable conclusions, etc.) they produced a work that appeared to be a product of state-of-the-art contemporary British Intelligence. The British Dossier is an; Appropriation and reproduction of another producers’ content as their own without just attribution. Hence the characterization holds in real world cases and helps in analyzing the deceptive features of those cases.
The Harms of Plagiarism
1. The original author is wronged as is widely recognized. In the Jayson Blair case, the work of other journalists was appropriated without any credit to them. Their effort was stolen. In the British Dossier, the genuine authors also suffered the wrong of having their own words applied to a purpose different from (in the case of Jane’s Intelligence Review, in direct opposition to) what they originally intended. This wrong goes beyond stealing content and ideas, it is an abuse of the stolen content.
2. The audience is wronged by being misled as to the source and relevance of the text. In some cases this wrong may not have strong consequences (though it will always have some; e.g. a false belief as to who is the author of the work). In the British Dossier case, the consequences are as strong as one can imagine. The result was war with thousands of deaths and injuries. The world was misled regarding the relevance of the information and choices were limited by that deception. These are extremely strong consequences which makes the British Dossier one of the most serious cases of plagiarism in history. Thus it is an important case to analyze and clarify.
3. The plagiarist is wronged by producing a false representation of their
own thoughts. One may think that the words of the report may well have
accorded perfectly with the thoughts of the plagiarists, which why they
choose to use them. Yet this point makes a confusion between a representation
of thoughts and the process of representing one’s thoughts. There
will be many instances of texts that say, in effect, what we have in mind.
The texts accord well with our thoughts – sometimes almost as if
we had written them (e.g. “I wish I had said that.”) But that
is not the same as making the effort to express one’s genuine thoughts.
When we work to tell the story or present the account as best we can,
we participate in a process of testing, comparing, adjusting, evaluating,
revising, and so on. These parts of the process are what make thinking
an intelligent activity. We learn as we work to express our thoughts.
Finding a ready-made expression of one’s thoughts removes the effort
of thinking. The British Dossier plagiarists seem to have limited their
thinking to making slight revisions in the text in order to conceal the
source and to add threat. Had they worked sincerely through the process
of finding the best information from the relevant sources and worked to
craft it into the best case possible given the evidence, then they may
have come much closer to the truth. As it is, the plagiarists trapped
themselves in a false room and closed all available exists and windows.
From within that room, only war was possible. The plagiarists cuts him/herself
off from her/his own thinking, thus limiting the potential for growth
of self and a stronger grasp of reality. This is the gut level reason
that many educators object so stenuously to plagiarism from students.
By cutting and pasting words in place of generating original expressions
of genuine ideas, the plagiarizing student sabotages their learning and
potential development. Plagiarism in school is anti-educational.
The internet, especially the world wide web, is frequently cited as a
main culprit in plagiarism. It is true that cut & paste technique
existed before computers (scissors and paste pot), and it is true that
plagiarists were using print sources to crib from long before the web,
but it is also true that finding, acquiring, and manipulating content
is far easier than ever before. Students commonly veer in the plagiarism
realm by appropriating too freely from web sources. It is at this border
that it can be difficult to distinguish unconscious plagiarism from plagiarism
by design. Carrol and Perfect demonstrate that writers can “appropriate
unconsciously the ideas of previous writers ....but have a strong sense
of conviction of the originality of those ideas.” (Caroll, 2002,
p.149). There is an irregular area of ambiguity in the borders between
plagiarism and scholarship. Learning to perform original scholarship and
writing involves learning how to negotiate that border. Novices may not
be able to operate in this ambiguous zone at all. Roig demonstrated that
many learners are unable to distinguish between paraphrase and plagiarism,
even when given the evidence to examine (Roig, 1997). Perceiving originality
is a learned skill.
BBC. 2003. “A piece of plagiarism?” BBC. February, 7.
Carrol, Marie and Perfect, Timothy J. 2002. “Student’s experiences of unconscious plagiarism: did I beget or forget?” In Applied Metacognition. Ed. Perfect, Timothy J. and Schwartz, Bennett L. pp. 149-166.
Crader, Bo . 2002. “A Historian and Her Sources.” The Weekly
Standard. January, 28.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 2002. “How I Caused That Story: A historian explains why someone else's writing wound up in her book.” Time. January, 27. http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,197614,00.html
Kurtz, Howard . 2003. “Bylines, Datelines and Fault Lines at The
N.Y. Times.” The Washington Post. June, 2.
Lewis, Mark, a. 2002. “The Ambrose Saga.” Forbes.com. February,
Lewis, Mark, b. 2002. “Doris Kearns Goodwin And The Credibility Gap.” Forbes.com. February, 27. http://www.forbes.com/home/2002/02/27/0227goodwin.html
Lewis, Mark, c. 2002. “Ambrose Problems Date Back To Ph.D. Thesis
.” Forbes.com. May, 5.
Mashberg, Tom. 1998. “Repeat Offender.” Salon.com. August
Roig, M. 1997. “When college student’s attempts at paraphrasing become instances of potential plagiarism.” Psychological Reports. 84, 973-982.
White, Michael and MacAskill, Michael and Norton-Taylor, Richard. 2003.
“Downing St admits blunder on Iraq dossier: Plagiarism row casts
shadow over No 10's case against Saddam.” The Guardian Unlimited.
White, Michael and Whitaker, Brian. 2003. “UK war dossier a sham,
2004 © Jon Dorbolo