Thursday, February 14, 2008

Thoughts on Plagiarism

Dean Dad did a post about a faculty member who plagiarized a statement of teaching philosophy, and since I read the post I keep thinking not only about it but also about the comments in the thread. I'm not thinking so much about plagiarism itself - plagiarism is bad, etc. - but more about the violent reaction that many have against it and what causes the violence of that reaction.

Now, the simple answer that many would give is that they react so vehemently to the idea (or fact) of plagiarism because it constitutes a gross violation of trust, honesty, etc., and that it is outrageous that anyone would ever represent the ideas or words of another as his/her own, under any circumstances. Thus, the anger is a righteous anger. Many would then go on to say that there is no doubt as to what constitutes plagiarism and that those who commit the crime of plagiarism should be given the smack-down without hesitation. Further, some would say that there is no need for a policy to be in place, because everybody knows that this is against the rules.

It's these simple answers that have me thinking. First, something in me resists the impulse to anger that so often characterizes academic discussions about plagiarism, as if each instance of plagiarism constitutes a personal affront to individual academics. They characterize the actions of the plagiarist as actions motivated by contempt or arrogance, as malicious. Now, I have a good track record of catching plagiarists (student plagiarists). I take plagiarism seriously. And yet, I don't think a single one of them was plagiarizing to hurt my feelings or to offend me. I also don't think that they really thought much about the possibility of being caught, so it's not that they arrogantly assumed that they'd get away with it. Rather, plagiarists are desperate. Yep, every single one of them, even high-falutin' ones like Doris Kearns Goodwin, is motivated by desperation.

Now, why is the plagiarist desperate? Why does the plagiarist despair? Here are some reasons:
  • The plagiarist thinks that he or she cannot do the work and succeed under his or her own steam.
  • The plagiarist is under some sort of a time crunch, whether because of procrastination or something outside of his/her control, and so thinks that the only way to get the work done is to "borrow" from somebody else.
  • The plagiarist doesn't really believe in the "assignment" and doesn't really believe that anybody will check for plagiarism or necessarily read what they've written with any attention (and I think this is the one that is probably the biggest issue with non-student plagiarists).
I note these "reasons" for plagiarism not to excuse it, but rather to suggest that perhaps it's not just about the person who plagiarizes being an asshole. Because I don't really think that's the case. I don't think plagiarism is about somebody waging an attack against people who stand on some moral higher ground. About a person trying to get away with something. I think it's about insecurity in some cases, a lack of faith in others, and sometimes it's about a combination of the two. Again, that doesn't excuse it. It's still wrong. But I think that taking the personal affront out of the equation helps to deal with it in a way that's more efficient and ultimately in a way that does more good.

With students, it makes sense to take plagiarism seriously because it impresses upon them the fact that their own, original ideas *matter.* It's about showing them that even if they fear that they're not up to the task (whether because of ability or because of procrastination or because of a feeling that they are insignificant) that they shouldn't let that fear rule them because what's important is the process and not the product. If a student plagiarizes, it doesn't show me anything about them, and the whole point of submitting assignments is for them to show themselves to me. I'd rather get a crappy assignment than a plagiarized one, mainly because I can't teach them anything if they're not showing me where they are with the material. I can teach a student who turns in something that sucks: I can't teach a student who turns in something that somebody else wrote. Moreover, most stuff that plagiarists choose to plagiarize sucks worse than what a student might do on his/her own. It just "sounds better."

Now, in the case that Dean Dad's correspondent described, this wasn't about a student, but about a faculty member, who plagiarized his (for the sake of convenience, imagine a his/her throughout) statement of teaching philosophy in his materials for reappointment (I get the sense that this was either for a 3rd year review or that the institution requires yearly submission of materials for probationary faculty). Is this different from an instance of a student plagiarizing? Are the reasons different, and is the situation even more clear-cut? These are the questions I've been asking myself all day long, as I've watched the comments to Dean Dad's post.

First of all, I think we're kidding ourselves if we think that everybody knows what constitutes plagiarism in every situation or that we regard all of our activities through that lens. Take a look at yourselves for a moment. Do you cite every idea that you present in a lecture that came from someplace other than your own brain? Every single one? Let's say that you're teaching an introductory course and they need some historical background. Do you tell them where you got that historical background from? Every time? Probably not. If you use an assignment that a colleague developed, do you cite him/her on the assignment sheet? Really? Some people may, but I think that this is a gray area for many of us. I mean, if something's not your idea you should cite it, and I'd argue that most of us follow this rule in scholarship, but in teaching? Really? Every single time?

What the case that Dean Dad's correspondent describes does is it ups the ante. What about when we talk about our teaching, in the context of something like promotion and tenure materials? Should that be original to us, or is it ok to borrow from others, or from the internet? Is this boilerplate stuff that we can freely borrow, or is it unique to us?

My impulse is that it should be unique to us. We should be talking specifically about our practices and our reasons for instituting those practices. I believe this in part because I'm at a teaching-intensive university, and you can't use boilerplate to discuss something that is intrinsic to what you do. And this was my impulse when I criticized some job applications when I was on a search committee, when two applicants from the same grad program used identical language in their job letters to talk about their teaching. My colleagues were more forgiving than I was in evaluating these candidates, citing that job letters included "boilerplate" language. I believed that it showed neither had really thought about his or her teaching in a deep way, but rather that they were talking the talk while not demonstrating that they could walk the walk. (I should note that while these candidates made it to first-round interviews, neither one of these candidates ultimately made the final cut for campus visits.)

This, my friends, is why it's helpful to have a policy, though. If it is clearly stated what is expected - that one talk specifically about his own teaching and how that relates to his broader theories about what teaching is supposed to achieve - then it makes sense to penalize people who don't meet that requirement. If, however, the message that is sent is that a) nobody will evaluate what is written very closely and b) that what is expected is "boilerplate" that fits a particular model and that is very general, that encourages plagiarism. It's just like giving a paper topic to students that is "conventional" and easily plagiarizable. And in that case, the "assignment" is the problem, as well as the system for evaluating it. Does that mean that the plagiarist is not culpable for his/her infraction? No. But to pretend that it's just "obvious" what should be done is also wrong.

It's not that the plagiarist is too simple-minded to understand the rules: it's that the implicit rules indicate one thing and the morality of those who enforce the rules indicates another. A strong statement about what is required eliminates this conflict. It also eliminates the personal investment in any conflict that might arise, as there is something to govern the response of the department or of the promotion and tenure committee. For me, the fact of the matter is this: if you don't give a good assignment, and if the person doing the assignment doesn't take the assignment seriously and believe that it matters, then you've got to interrogate the assignment itself and the person or people who are evaluating it. This doesn't excuse a breach of academic integrity, but it also doesn't authorize the evaluators to congratulate themselves for giving the smack-down.

Now, in the case that Dean Dad's correspondent described, do I think that the plagiarizer should have been renewed without reservation? Absolutely not. Do I think that they should have been renewed with reservations? Maybe, or maybe they should have given a terminal one-year contract and told to hit the road. It's not about feeling sorry for the person, though, if I express any leniency about this. It's about the fact that at the end of the day I really do believe that we've got to hold ourselves accountable for setting up situations in which plagiarism occurs. If we lay out the rules clearly, and the consequences clearly, and it still occurs? Obviously it's on the plagiarist. If we don't do those things? It's on us as well as on them. And we have no moral higher ground on which to stand. We are complicit.


The_Myth said...

Very thoughtful post!

A comment on a small piece of it:

Plagiarism *does* make me angry, but not for the reasons you laid out.

Plagiarism makes me angry because it usually is a demonstration of incompetence. And we now live in a society that seems to reward least if it is accompanied by a brief apology.

Using someone else's work requires more than a "My bad" and a smile before wandering off without reprisal.

The Academy is a social institution where knowledge and its dissemination are supposed to have some degree of import. And I am disheartened when legions of people seem to forget this mission, or disregard it for one foreign to me [like the "Everyone deserves a diploma" crowd].

Also, I appreciated you pointing out the impossibility of citing all previous knowledge amidst a lecture. But, lecture and teaching plans seem to be in that area where common wisdom is allowed to hold.
Often, oral knowledge lacks a trail with which to track it back to its original source.

Thus, I often mention how "one of my own professors taught me this lecture" when I discuss media and socialization, but I generally do not quote her directly. If asked, I can usually send students to her work and those of her inspirations to seek that knowledge.

But, copying verbatim prose from someone's teaching philosophy for your own tenure and promotion file... that's just too sickly paradoxical for me not to be disgusted.

Yours in academic honesty....

PMG said...

I really agree with you on this. I've certainly failed my share of students for plagiarizing, and always include a very nasty warning of such thing in my syllabi. But you're right that the tone of outrage seems misguided. And it's not just individual affront, many of the commentators on Dean Dad's post make an argument along the lines of, "plagiarism strikes at the very core of what we do." I don't think that's true. The production of original work is not the goal of a university, education is. And obviously producing original work, and the learning of good ethical values more broadly, is an important part of being educated, but it is only a part of the learning process.

Dean Dad said...

I'm intrigued at your third bullet point -- "the plagiarist doesn't really believe in the assignment." That's what I was getting at with my "arrogant or contemptuous" line.

I'm not a huge believer in statements of teaching philosophy generally - we've eliminated that requirement at my college, on the grounds that nobody could convincingly explain its utility -- but, as you put it, I'd rather get a half-assed effort than a copy-and-pasted one.

The 'interrogate the assignment' line can much too quickly slide into what I think of as the George Costanza rule: Nobody specifically told me I couldn't have sex with the cleaning lady on my desk, so how was I supposed to know?

Some things are basic. If you think of an RST packet as a job application, which it basically is, then plagiarism in your packet constitutes lying on your job application. That's grounds for summary termination.

If the department wants to change its policies and procedures going forward, that's fine. But that's properly a separate issue.

Ewan said...

I'm afraid that I'm in the "hang 'em" group. The twit *agrees* that it was plagiarism: we're done, they're gone.

Proper citation/recognition of others' intellectual effort *is* at the very core of academia. One commenter noted that a preface of "This is someone else's work, but encapsulates my approach perfectly" would have made all the difference, and I agree. [It might still be a negative in the file, for 'lack of effort' or some such, but not I expect a big one if this is an R1 or similar.]

Colour me heartless :).

Second Line said...

What about academic "theory" speech? 'My work focuses on the allusive intersections between manifestations of trauma and historicity within postcolonial literary economies'. One does not spring from the womb speaking this way. This is not an easy language to acquire. It's a language that is "learned" via a variety of sources once one realizes that they must speak this way in order to be taken seriously. It seems to me there is a fine line here between appropriating language as ones own and what, at least by some defintiitons, may count as plagiarism.

dr zombieswan said...

I think that over at Dean Dad's place the most relevent thing I see is this: the idea about due credit.

For a teaching philosopy, which is not a research thing but something else (someone there called it a bureaucratic doc... I like that) you *can* (and should) give credit for the places where you didn't re-invent the wheel.

My own philosophy comes from a lot of places. So you're "borrowing" ideas, why can't you just say so? Can't you say "my philosophy is that learning, and teaching, is collaborative, therefore, here are some ideas I pulled from Dr. So-in-so's philosophy?" And have a citation.

When I pull assignments from the web for students from other teachers, who have clearly posted them with the intent of sharing, I put a little note at the bottom, something along the lines of "This handout is taken liberally from Dr. XYZ's webpage at" That's modeling the correct behavior for them, and giving credit for me. And I'm not having to reinvent each handout I make.

But there are so many of these little "tests" of what we practice/preach. When I put together some proposed syllabi, I searched to see what other teachers were doing. Sometimes I used the same witers/texts, in the same order. I may have used ideas from those syllabi, too. So, are they the same sorts of documents? (Probably. And they probably should include citations, *at least* the little note at the bottom.)

But when you're floundering and have put it off till the last minute, that temptation to take shortcuts is huge. But should be resisted, ultimately.

But can we forgive?

Plagiarism is such an issue in the Ivory Tower. It trickles down from on high, apparently.

Dr. Crazy said...

Quickly to respond:

The Myth: Thanks for your response, and yes, I can see where the incompetence could cause anger in this situation. I do think, though, that I would be miserable pretty much constantly if I got angry at every bit of incompetence that I witnessed :) I *totally* agree with you, however, that plagiarism is serious and that it should demand more than a "my bad" from the plagiarist.

DD: I think that if one doesn't believe in an assignment, that's not necessarily indicative of arrogance. Think about when students perceive assignments as "busy work" or when students report that a certain professor doesn't actually read papers submitted. It is *possible* that the students are being arrogant there, I suppose, but I think what I've sensed in those conversations is less arrogance and contempt than them being disheartened and sort of beaten down. Those in power have acted in bad faith, and so the student doesn't see the point of acting in good faith in response. Again, not saying that plagiarism is then justified because it isn't, but rather saying that the motives here are complicated. I personally think statements of teaching philosophy in the general sense are worthless, but I like the way my university has us write about our teaching for promotion and tenure. You talk about all of the specific courses you teach - including specific assignments, etc. - and how these illustrate what you do successfully in the classroom. I think that is something that is illuminating for them to read, and it's been illuminating for me to write about my teaching in that concrete way.

As for the George Costanza line, I suppose the "slippery slope" argument is a real one, but I also think that the "everybody knows x,y,z" response is clearly not true. There's a reason why students have such a difficult time learning what constitutes plagiarism: it's because it's really confusing. Now, should a professor know the rules? Yes. Should the professor be held accountable? Yes. But I'm inclined to think there's got to be some dysfunction in the process for somebody to commit an act that would jeopardize their entire career and make years of education meaningless. This shouldn't be a situation that allows the other faculty to pat themselves on the back because they're so much more ethical than the plagiarist - indeed, they should probably be asking themselves about whether this indicates that they failed to mentor this person through the process. (In my dept. all jr. faculty choose a sr. faculty mentor who shepherds them through the process and serves as a sounding board for questions about organization of matrials, etc.)

Ewan: I don't think you're heartless, but you imply that it's a done deal precisely because the person admitted it. What, if he said, "but I didn't know I was plagiarizing," that would make it ok or more ok? That doesn't make sense to me. Just to be clear, I think that what the person did was grounds for dismissal. What I'm interrogating though is the process, which is a mystified and mystifying one, and I'm interrogating the righteous indignation of those who want to hang the plagiarist. I'm not saying that proper citation/credit isn't important. I'm just saying that even the most vigilant people don't necessarily cite every idea (or as SL points out, every jargonny phrase) that crosses their lips, or even material that pops up on an assignment sheet or syllabus. Hot Shot academics don't cite every kernel of an idea that might have come out of a discussion in a grad seminar they were teaching in the finished book(and the meaner might not even put that seminar in their acknowledgments). This goes on pretty regularly. And so I'm... skeptical when people beat their chests and cry out that academic integrity is at the core of what the university means because there are just so many examples where that's not true.

Dr. Z.: An issue to consider as well with giving credit where it is due is that this could actually *hurt* a person at my institution in the p&t process if they didn't have enough "original" and "innovative" teaching materials of their own. In other words, if they cited everything they "borrowed" in their teaching documents, if they borrowed heavily, then they'd be seen as weak in terms of course development, etc. This probably wouldn't occur at the department level, but it would be a definite threat at the administrative level.

Feminist Avatar said...

I think Second Line makes a great point. Ultimately, part of becoming an academic is learning the vocabulary, the style, the 'right' way to lay things out, the accepted methodologies for everything from citing works to what teaching styles are appropriate. Effectively, everything we are as people is learned, and as such is 'stolen' from someone else. Yes, as academics, we hope we can add something 'original' to the world, but in reality this is a tiny part of what we do or write, and even then we are bound by our discipline's rules about what forms of knowledge are acceptable; what insights are relevant. Yes, we can all agree that using other people's words or major ideas needs a citation, but we don't usually add that we learned how to structure an article from prof x. There are even instances when we use shared knowledge or theory and so don't bother to point out its origins- such as when we briefly mention what class we are discussing, we don't say Marx was the person who pointed out this was worth studying- ultimately we couldn't refer to everything as that would be to deconstruct ourselves and our field to a meaningless extent.

Furthermore, we should also remember that what plaigerism means can be quite culturally specific. Japanese society prizes the adoption of ideas from people older and wiser, and doesn't have the same emphasis on 'originality' (whatever that means) as 'we' (the west) do.

the rebel lettriste said...

one thing I was thinking on, regarding teaching/lecturing and plagiarism:
it's true that we don't attribute EVERY piece of knowledge/approach/tidbit/point that we offer our students. If I did that I'd go mad.

I teach really, really OLD literature. There are some 600 years of criticism around the texts I teach; I can't attribute everything when I lecture. What I can do is think carefully about how I present information, how my students will receive it, and what it means more generally in my discipline.

I think that an STP is an opportunity to discuss the way that you *present* information, and that is something unique to you and that is worth articulating. That's why plagiarizing one's STP is really tacky. I am not advocating the continued use of STP's, because I do think they are ridiculous. But thinking through, and putting into writing, HOW one delivers content, HOW one frames one's pedagogy, WHAT and WHO has influenced that practice? That's good for the profession and good for students. And at the end of the day, an STP should be ONE PAGE. If the plagiarizing prof. couldn't muster that, I am sad for him.

Clancy said...

This is an excellent post, Dr. Crazy. To this summary of the arguments raised at DD's, though:

"Now, the simple answer that many would give is that they react so vehemently to the idea (or fact) of plagiarism because it constitutes a gross violation of trust, honesty, etc., and that it is outrageous that anyone would ever represent the ideas or words of another as his/her own, under any circumstances. Thus, the anger is a righteous anger. Many would then go on to say that there is no doubt as to what constitutes plagiarism and that those who commit the crime of plagiarism should be given the smack-down without hesitation. Further, some would say that there is no need for a policy to be in place, because everybody knows that this is against the rules."

I would add that another source of the anger is the fairness issue in relation to the academic job market -- the fact that there are likely a hundred other people who would have been honored to have that guy's job, to take every minute step of the reappointment process seriously, even a document that seems like kind of a throwaway that no one will read. Doing the right thing, even when no one's looking, etc. This guy knew better. I like that you raise the "do you cite EVERY little turn of phrase, idea, what have you?" question, because it is definitely pertinent, but there's a difference...this is an egregious case.

Second Line said...

To the above, I would add that there are far more than a mere 100 people. I suspect the numbers are more likely in the thousands.

But I'm actually less angry at the guy. I think he was stupid for doing it and stupid for getting caught. However, it's hardly an isolated instance -- he simply got caught. I know many, many people who played fast and loose with "plagiarism" and mis-representation when it came to the writing of their job application letters etc. And honestly, I have no problem with that. It's about getting the job, not how you get it ... or how you keep it.

Shaun Huston said...

Your passage on plagiarism and its effect on teaching and learning struck a chord for me, but rather than hijack your comment thread, I posted an entry to my blog.