Monday, February 18, 2008

Ah, Plagiarism

I'm not certain what I think about this, but it does seem interesting in light of the discussion that went on about plagiarism last week. I wonder how many "hang the plagiarist!" folks are Obama supporters, and, if any of them are/were, I wonder what impact this news makes on them.

What's interesting about the coverage of the plagiarism accusations is the way that people are going after Clinton's camp for bringing up the issue (which I anticipated would be the case when I first heard the news, as how weak is it to claim that your opponent is a copy-cat, whether or not it's true? And, indeed, even I think it's kind of weak), and often as support for this they are talking about how all candidates borrow language and ideas and it's part of the process, blah blah blah, or, as John R. Bohrer writes over at the Huffington Post:

"If you want to be high-minded about it, you could say looking at what survives one campaign to go on to the next is a study of what rhetoric works and what rhetoric doesn't.

Clearly, Patrick's worked, and Obama's seems to be doing the same. Otherwise they wouldn't be going after it in so many different ways.

In fact, I'd like to put Hillary Clinton's 2008 attacks on Obama's rhetoric next to that of Patrick's 2006 Republican opponent, Kerry Healey.

Might find some "plagiarism" there, too."

Here's the thing: I still haven't decided about whether I support Obama or Clinton. I am so lucky as to have months before I could vote for either. I will say this, though: I'm less bothered by the fact that Obama borrowed language than by his response to being caught out about it. I'm not pleased about the "no big deal" vibe I got from his comments to the NY Times. At the very least he should be embarrassed. I mean, that's the least I expect from my students, and they're not running for president. And the "I wrote two books" defense doesn't mean crap to me, as I don't let a student off the hook if he or she wrote their first paper but submitted a plagiarized one for the second. Just because you *could* have written it doesn't mean you *did*. Duh. But so yeah, his response is to the allegations is weak.

You know, I feel like *I'm* embarrassed for both Obama and Clinton. And that sucks because I know I'm going to end up voting for one or the other of them.


ETA: I was just cruising around on the youtube video of the two speeches side by side, and some poor soul argued that if you talk to your friend about it first, and your friend consents to you using his ideas/language, that it's not plagiarism. Here's a tip to any students who might believe that: consent means nothing without proper citation. That defense will land you in big trouble with the Academic Integrity Police, and could get you expelled from school.

22 comments:

The_Myth said...

Holy crap!

To me, this is just another instance of "my bad" coupled with an attempt to distract from the wrongdoing.

In this case, instead of the student claiming "I tried *really* hard!" Obama takes the road of "Well, I wrote 2 books [so I know what I'm doing...but not really...]." There's also the implied interrogation of "How many books have you written, Hillary?"

This is why I think those of us who disapprove of plagiarism get righteously angry [your description seemed very apt in the last discussion!] because it seems this rather important issue just gets disregarded as unimportant. It seems as if those who think plagiarism is wrong just get swept aside by those who just want everyone to ignore what's going on.

Why is it so hard just to mention where an idea came from?

Bardiac said...

It's interesting that we're concerned about Obama using someone else's words in a speech. I don't think most politicians write their own speeches anyway, do they? Should they all start off with a note about thanking the speechwriter?

Dr. Crazy said...

Bardiac: That's why I think it was a weak move on the part of the Clinton campaign to make a huge deal about it - even though I also think this instance goes beyond using a speech writer *in that* we can find out who the speech writers are on a given campaign as they are employees of the campaign. While it's true that speech writers not cited in speeches, it is understood and verifiable who is responsible for words/ideas. The thing with this is that he *lifted* a section of another politician's speech without even a nod, which to me is a different thing. BUT, again, I'm less bothered by this part of it because I do think that there is a gray area when it comes to political speeches, and this isn't that far from what is the accepted practice. I think it's a gaffe, sure, but I think that had his response been different I'd be less critical of the gaffe, if that makes sense.

Interestingly, another defense that some are offering is that he "only" lifted two words - "just words" - of Patrick's. What I think as somebody who teaches writing, though, is that he lifted a whole section wholesale - same quotations, same idea. Turn It In would flag this section of the speech, I suspect. If a student did that, he or she would be busted. It would be a *clear* case of plagiarism, whether the "friend" consented to the use of the idea or whether it was very close to the accepted practice in the given discourse. (Example: it's one thing to get a suggestion of a way to go in peer review and then to make it one's own - entirely another to take a comment without changing it and to incorporate it into the paper.)

Myth: see, this is where the anger gets us nowhere, though. It comes off as petty, I think, even though it is, ultimately, justified and righteous. The people who hem and haw about how wrong it is come off looking like they're a bunch of vindictive and nit-picking thought police, and that ultimately ends up legitimating the "no big" response on the part of either the plagiarizer or innocent bystanders who are sympathetic to the idea that this isn't so different from using a speech writer. I'm not sure how to get beyond this in this sort of situation, but at least in the academy, I think it helps to take the anger out of the equation, if only to make the situation seem one that is less motivated by vindictiveness, and thus more "legitimate" to those who would give the plagiarist a pass.

I've got to say, I wish I were teaching composition this semester, as I do think that this would be a *great* way to get into a discussion of what "counts" as plagiarism and why plagiarism matters (or doesn't). Obama's defense of himself makes it seem like plagiarism is no big deal if plagiarists could have written it themselves and if they ultimately say, "oh, I'm happy to give credit to all kinds of people for all kinds of ideas, but the point isn't who gets credit but that the ideas themselves are galvanizing the country." I'd say that plagiarism is a big deal, NOT because it proves a person can write something but rather because it shows a certain kind of depth of thought and it allows us to evaluate a person's (in this case the candidate's) thought process. In other words, this isn't just a superficial issue about whose language gets used: it's an issue of how one goes about solving a problem.

That said, no candidate does all of that work on his/her own, not in this day and age. And so it's an incredibly muddy issue. Political campaigns are collaborative efforts, and the chosen candidate is in many ways a figurehead for a constellation of ideas that come from a lot of different people, many of whom go uncited (at least formally). So again, I'm not sure what I think about this particular situation, but I do think that it's an incredibly interesting situation on which to meditate, especially as a person who attempts to teach students not only the rules of academic integrity and proper citation but also the WHYs behind those rules.

Dr. Crazy said...

A thought just occurred to me while I was in the shower. I think part of the reason that I find this situation so distasteful is because both candidates have done a complete role reversal in terms of their belief/lack thereof in "words." Clinton's been going on and on about how "words" aren't the point - and yet this accusation makes them exactly the point. Indeed, she's saying that "words" DO matter. Conversely, Obama who's been going on and on about the importance of "words" has changed tack, and is saying, ultimately, that they *don't* matter, what matters is ideas. I'd say Obama comes out worse in the reversal, given the fact that the very material he lifted was about how words matter, but really, I feel like both probably should figure out where they stand on the whole "significance of words" issue. That said, perhaps this only matters to me because I'm an English professor :)

Maggie said...

I'm an Obama supporter, so take this with a grain of salt, but: I think it IS a pretty weak attack on Clinton's part. Especially since, when her own campaign manager was asked if Clinton could assure the public that there was no plagiarism in her own speeches, and he said that she couldn't.

"But," he said, "She's not running on the strength of her rhetoric."

This is what pisses me off. Clinton has this whole line about Obama is "only words" and "no record" and that is demonstrably UNTRUE. He spent years in the IL state legislature. He has detailed policy positions available on his website and in written materials that all his staffers give to voters. Samantha Power left her job at Harvard to work on his foreign policy team in the US Senate. Her claim that he is "only words" is just b.s.

That said, I have been extremely agitated by the way that the media has covered Clinton. Not enough to turn me into a fan (I have HUGE problems with many of the policies the Clintons pursued in the 90s), but it does make me also want to stick up for her on occasion.

Dr. Crazy said...

Maggie: You'll get no argument from me about the fact that this was a weak attack on Clinton's part. and that it's ultimately a distraction from substantive issues about how the candidates differ on policy, etc. I suppose I would, however, have liked to see a stronger response from Obama to it. See, that's the thing: I think the situation makes BOTH candidates look crappy.

At any rate, I just want to reiterate that I've not decided who I prefer between the two, and this wasn't intended as a post to slam Obama so much as to highlight a real life example where the complexity of determining plagiarism comes to the fore. (And yes, I'm a total nerd. I really would love it if one of the "issues" for all candidates in every language was where they come down on the significance of language. It's just too funny to me.)

Dr. Crazy said...

er, not "every language" but "every election" - this is what I get for commenting while distracted :)

Maggie said...

I think one of the interested "nerd" :) arguments about this is if there are different standards for political speech versus academic speech/writing. It seems to me that there are, if only de facto. Is that a bad thing? I'm not sure. It does muddle the issue for students, though, absolutely.

One parallel might be classroom lectures. Do I cite all of my sources as I'm giving a classroom lecture? No. If there's a particular phrase or concept that comes specifically from one person, then I'll usually mention that. But I certainly don't footnote where all of my information or ideas come from, and my classroom lectures are surely not all my own original ideas.

Anastasia said...

this is a bit more than footnoting the source of some information, though. it's the intent and the idea that are coming across but they are coming through packaged in exactly the same the rhetorical structure, lifted wholesale from someplace else. I'm just a little uncomfortable with that.

I don't think we necessarily assume that he wrote the speech--sure, he's got speechwriters--but I do sort of assume *they* wrote the speech for *him*.

I'm sort of ambivalent about Clinton's attack for the reasons listed here but damn. This is pretty egregious and I don't buy for a second that it's no big deal.

Shaun Huston said...

The question of context is the most compelling one for me. Plagiarism strikes at the heart of what academics do, and that's why there are explicit and implicit rules that prohibit copying other people's work and passing it off as your own. This is more or less true in the realm of book and periodical publishing as well.

In other contexts, though, the situation *is* muddier. Filmmakers visually "quote" other filmmakers all of the time in the way they set up and frame shots, use the camera, etc. How often are these moments formally cited? Never, at least not in the work itself. In interviews and DVD commentary tracks directors, etc. will discuss how they lifted this or that image from this or that other film, but that is incidental to the primary text. Maybe the differences are simply due to differences in media, but those differences do appear to produce complementary cultural differences regarding how you can and can't use the work of others in your own.

In Obama's case, and political speeches more generally, what is the responsibility? I'm not sure there is a clear answer to that question. The (mostly) academic readership of this blog, including myself, would clearly prefer that this issue be taken seriously. I agree, in particular, with Dr. Crazy's sentiment that Obama should have just owned the mistake instead of dismissing it. On the other hand, Anastasia is right in noting that Obama likely did not write the speech in question. To me this doesn't absolve him from his responsibility as the leader of his own campaign and as the one who delivered the lifted words, but he could have sold out his speech writers and didn't.

Joe Biden's lifting of a speech from former British Labor Leader Neil Kinnock has been cited a few times in the reporting on the Obama speech. One major difference in the two cases is that Biden not only lifted practically an entire speech from someone else, but the speech was, essentially, biographical, so he was also stealing Kinnock's life story.

While I don't like the phrase "it's just words" either, I do think that different words serve different purposes and the Biden example seems to more clearly be the kind of political plagiarism that merits seriously reconsidering someone as a person you would vote for. Obama at least was using someone else's words to express an idea that belonged to him.

Even though I have gone on too long, I do want to make clear that not only is the Oregon primary just under three months away, but I am a registered Pacific Green and not a Democrat. Were I a Democrat, I would likely vote for Obama, but that is after the exits of Kucinich and Edwards. In the end, this isn't "my" campaign and my interest here is far more academic than it is political.

Maggie said...

Just FYI: Salon has a bit on this today, and some of the comments are very interesting.

Also, I'm still just very intrigued by the (possible) distinction between political speech and academic speech. E.g., "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property" was originally John Locke's phrase; it got turned into "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" by the founders... is that plagiarism? yes and no. Yes, in that Locke never gave "permission" to rebellious colonists to use his phrase, and it is certainly never directly attributed to Locke, but "no" in that these ideas were percolating at the time, and Jefferson liked this particular riff on them.

Does that mean our founding documents are plagiarized? And, if so, what is to be done? (That last bit is Lenin, btw.)

Dr. Crazy said...

Maggie,
I think it is an intriguing (possible) distinction, but I'd say that we must be very careful to locate any distinctions that we make historically. "Plagiarism" only comes into the English language as a term in the 17th century, and only begins to be very meaningful in the 18th and 19th, with the rise of copyright law. "Intellectual property" doesn't *exist* in the same way prior to that time. In other words, when we talk about Thomas Jefferson, we're talking about a guy who's operating under a very new and shifting set of rules. To analogize what he does to what happened with Obama is, for this reason, problematic, in my opinion.

Historicizing these issues is important, and is something that I spend a lot of time talking about when I teach Shakespeare, who typically does "borrow" ideas from others. It's not appropriate to call what Shakespeare does "plagiarism," even if we would think of it as plagiarism today. Similarly, it's not appropriate to say that 18th century texts are improperly punctuated or capitalized: it's that the rules we have now were not the same rules we had then, or they didn't carry the same weight.

Finally, I am actually very disturbed by the way that "permission" is being used as an explanation or justification in this case because permission makes absolutely no difference in a plagiarism case. Plagiarism is, simply, representing another's ideas/words as your own without giving credit where it is due. Even if the original person gives the ok (so, for example, when you buy a paper off the internet you have permission to use it), that's still plagiarism.

Maggie said...

You're right, but I am smart enough to know when "intellectual property" comes into existence :) My larger point was that political speech may be different than other kinds of speech. To give more contemporary examples, not everyone who says "better angels of our nature" quotes Lincoln, or "what is to be done" quotes Lenin, or "fired up and ready to go" quotes Obama, or "don't change horses in midrace" quotes whomever came up with that old chestnut. And even if they quote the rhetor these days, is that accurate given that those words were likely written by someone else? (E.g., was "morning in America" Reagan's phrase? We attribute it to Reagan, but what are the chances that he actually wrote it? If someone uses that phrase again, will s/he be infringing on Reagan's intellectual property? Or the speechwriter's? Or will we conclude that 'morning in America' is a powerful image, and so it will become part of our standard political lexicon?)

All of this is not to say, btw, that I think Obama lifting a speech and justifying it was right or somehow not plagiarism at some level. But I don't think there's one blanket kind of "plagiarism" in dealing either with my students or cases like this.

Maggie said...

Oooh, I just re-read my comment. I hope you don't take it as snarky! I'm sorry if it came off that way! What I was really trying to do was pose these as rhetorical questions, not snarky ones!!

Truly, I am just very interested in this distinction (or lack thereof).

Dr. Crazy said...

I hope I wasn't seemingly bitchy in my response - I didn't mean to imply that you weren't smart enough to know that or whatever - I think I was in part responding to the fact that lots of people have been making similar claims, and one thing that the comments at a variety of locations (from Salon to youtube to perezhilton) have brought home to me is that people don't actually know what plagiarism is. So what was directed at you was probably in part a response to the masses, if that makes sense. Even though "the masses" clearly don't read this blog. :)

Actually, the best explanation of why this *is* plagiarism was in a comment over at salon by somebody who goes by AKASmith (I think - I know the "Smith" is right, in any case) in which the commenter outlined how this would work in the setting of a speech class and thinking about how public speeches work in terms of intellectual property. I'd link, but I'm lazy :)

At any rate, I agree that there's not any one-size-fits-all way of dealing with plagiarism - and I agree that what counts as plagiarism is different in different discursive contexts - but I do think that there are clear-cut cases, and I'd say that this is one. Now, does that mean that I think that had Obama's handling of it been different that it would have made no difference? No. But generally when there's gray area with students in a similar situation it's because they don't know the rules of plagiarism and proper citation. I believe that Obama does (or I want to believe he does, as if he doesn't, well, that seems like a mark against him to me since he's been to college and he's a lawyer). For this reason, I just wish that when the accusation was made he'd responded in a way that was less dismissive of the charge, but then changed tack and said that it was a distraction and gotten back to *substantive* issues. Instead, he lowered himself to Clinton's level ("She does it too!") and made lame excuses ("But I wrote two books before") and then was dismissive of the ethical implications ("I don't think Americans think it's a big deal!"). (Obviously I'm putting words in Obama's mouth here - he didn't say those things in quotation marks.) Actually, even if he'd just said it was a long campaign and that mistakes get made I'd have been happier. Instead, with the citation of Deval Patrick's "permission" along with the other responses that he gave, well, he didn't really take responsibility. And that's one of the things that I look for when I deal with these cases with students. And I want a president who takes responsibility (unlike our current one). That said, I also want a president who doesn't make lame attacks on opponents when there are more important things to discuss. This is why this whole thing makes me vaguely disgusted with both of the democratic candidates. Also, for Clinton, I feel like it was a stupid (amateur?) political move. I don't fault the campaign for going negative - that's politics - but for going negative with something so DUMB? Yeah, that's lame.

I just wish one of them would have done a better job. Or that we had another candidate who would.

Dr. Crazy said...

No worries, Maggie (our comments crossed) - I was worried that I sounded snarky in my original response! I'm actually really interested in these distinctions, too, and I think it's really useful to think about them, especially as we try to articulate what "academic" plagiarism is to students - for you KNOW some students are going to come along with, "But Barack Obama did the same thing and it was ok!" We've got to come up with an answer for that.

Maggie said...

I agree. That's actually the main reason I'm interested in this... because my experience with MOST student plagiarism is that they ACTUALLY DON'T KNOW what it is. Sure, I get the occasional student who will buy a whole paper or whatever, but mostly I have clueless students who honestly wouldn't know plagiarism if it bit them in the leg. And given the kinds of examples that shaun mentions (e.g., films quoting other films, music sampling, writers that take on the style of this or that author), sometimes I find it hard to define it for them myself. (Mostly I yell, "when in doubt, cite!" but that's not very interesting or informative...)

Feminist Avatar said...

If the same speechwriter wrote both speeches (ie he had worked on both campaigns) would it still be plaigerism?

Feminist Avatar said...

did you like how I assumed the speechwriter was male- my bad.

The_Myth said...

feminist avatar,

some institutions *do* presume that one's previous work MUST be referenced. For instance, one cannot copy another journal article of one's own manufacture for another work. Portions, yes. Rough ideas, most certainly. Wholesale arguments without a nod to the previous work, nope, not allowed.

Here's the thing that percolates behind this whole issue:

Let's assume that Obama and Patrick both use speechwriters. Speechwriters get paid to *give* their words and ideas to whomever pays for their work; as far as I have heard, they effectively sell their ownership to the speechgiver.

Obama made no claim to have had the same speechwriter as Patrick. In fact, he said Patrick and he shared ideas. For him not to admit this openly is disingenuous. I also find it unethical.

It's all very troubling from an education standpoint.

Feminist Avatar said...

The myth: absolutely in this instance there is no evidence that they shared a speechwriter. I was just wondering on a theoretical level whether it made a difference? I agree that speechwriters essentially sell their product to the candidate, but it must be difficult as a writer to change your style and rhetoric. If you resuse your own work, even if you have previously sold it, is it plaigerism? And is it the candidate's job to police this sort of thing?

Doctor Pion said...

Of course, it only took a few days before Clinton was caught doing the same thing, only she was repeating essentially what a former opponent (Edwards) said a few months ago rather than something a member of the campaign had said.

It remains an open question whether Patrick "gave" Obama the speech before Obama used it (since you don't have to be paid to be a speechwriter), but that is mostly irrelevant to the key question: is politics the same as academia? I think not, since outright theft of ideas is taken as a major compliment in politics, and bald faced lies are usually just called "campaign promises" rather than lies.