Friday, October 31, 2008

Some Thoughts on Plagiarism

Most people know that I am very interested in the issue of plagiarism. There are many reasons for this, some principled, some more accidental. Today, I want to put some of these thoughts down.

First, plagiarism is an important concern in second language writing instruction. Attitudes toward plagiarism, it turns out, are culturally conditioned, so that students and researchers who started in non-Western educational systems sometimes don't understand the importance of proper citation. Also, even once this is understood, copying the exact words of an English-language source is, of course, easier than putting it in your own. The temptation for second-language users to plagiarize is therefore, at least arguably, higher.

My allegorical notion of research "as a second language" offers a way of transferring this point as well. Some fields are less persnickety about citation than others, and some scholars got their start as writers well outside the academic community. They therefore bring attitudes and habits with them that may not be acceptable in their chosen "second language", their new research idiom. Also, as fields previously dominated by "scientific" styles of writing move towards more "literary" modes, some writers seem to be taking a great deal of "poetic license" in regard to academic standards. We need to keep in mind that the standards we apply to a great poet like Shakespeare cannot be directly transferred to a scholar at the start of her career.

Unfortunately, well-established scholars appear to get away with plagiarism much more easily than students. That is in part more an appearance than a reality. Many more students than scholars plagiarize; not all of them get caught and some are let off without any formal reprimand. And when they do get caught, the clemency they enjoy is less publicized than in the case of high profile scholars. But it is true that highly respected scholars often retain their status even when their transgressions are discovered, while students often fail the course or are expelled from school. As I am discovering these days, too, it is easier to publish an "appreciation" of a major theorist's work, than it is to publish an exposé of his or her poor scholarship.

So I've been thinking about my position on scholarship as "academic misconduct". I think the moral tinge that the accusation unavoidably has hinders our enforcement of the relevant standards. In most cases, I think, students should simply be deducted marks for plagiarizing because it is "shoddy work" (as the American Historical Association puts it), not failed for cheating. It should be treated like getting a fact wrong or drawing illogical conclusions from premises. I leave aside cases of stealing or buying another student's work, or submitting whole passages transcribed from books. That is more obviously cheating. My point is that there is a great deal of plagiarism that should be taken as a deficient scholarship, not academic misconduct.

In a slogan: We need to teach proper citation, not preach it. (I swear I just made that up; but I'm not the only one, of course.)

In this spirit, revealing plagiarism and misreadings in the published work of one's peers should be normalized as acts of ordinary "critical reading". It should be like pointing out errors in reasoning, dubious inferences from data, and methodological problems. It should be taken as a criticism of the paper in question, not the scholar who wrote it. Above all, it should be talked about openly. Community standards are just that: a collective concern.

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