Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Plagiarism and Voice

The Yale Writing Center has an excellent statement on plagiarism, telling us that it involves a

fundamental question for writers: “Where is my voice in this project?” Seen in this light, the strategies that help you avoid plagiarism can also be strategies that help you gain power as a writer. Once your guiding question about your relationship to sources is “Where is my voice?” you are well on your way to using sources in an effective and legitimate way.

It has long been my view that we must reframe the plagiarism issue in terms of scholarship skills not moral integrity. There are, of course, "urgent moral and intellectual reasons to avoid plagiarism," as the people at Yale put it. But their suggestion that it is, at bottom, a question of developing your voice as a writer is also important. To my mind, more important.

Once a case of a plagiarism is discovered, it often goes a long way to explaining a certain lack of confidence in the writing. The writer was unsure of his or her own voice or place in the conversation and was therefore unable to accurately reference the contribution of others.

Consider the poorest possible way of avoiding plagiarism: quoting large passages from other writers. This practice is sometimes defended as a way of a giving full voice to the work of these other writers and letting readers interpret them in their own way. But it is actually a very imprecise way of using other people's work. The prose that they wrote was suited to the context in which they were writing—most locally, the text from which the quote is taken. The extensive quotation will therefore often include a lot of irrelevant details and qualifications that connect it to this original context, not yours. It can therefore be misleading to write,

Jones has argued that '...'. Smith says the same thing: '...'. It is true that, as Ernst has put it, '...' But Phillips's response to this criticism is apt; he has pointed out that '...'.

Nonetheless, you sometimes find several pages in a row that move along in this manner, often simply stringing together very long block quotations.

If your voice is limited to that of a polite moderator, introducing one "speaker" after another, then you are obviously not a participant in the conversation. And in academic writing that's what you have to be. If you solve this problem simply by removing the quotation marks and references to other writers, you are of course engaging in simple plagiarism. "When you plagiarize," the Yale Writing Center reminds us, "you join [the] conversation on false grounds, representing yourself as someone you are not." But they go on to make the much more important point: "the act of stealing another’s words or ideas erases your voice." The real and lasting solution to the problem of plagiarism, then, is to learn to recognize your own distinct voice in the conversation you are trying to enter. It is not just about confessing to your own unoriginality; it is about actually making an original contribution.


Anthea Wilson said...

Your comments are so true. This is something that I am currently struggling with - how to find my own voice in writing my thesis, at a time when I am still trying to understand what I am writing about. A student recently asked how she was supposed to write an essay when she didn't fully understand what she was writing about. I proposed that the very act of writing helps you to formulate your own understanding and allows you to gradually find your own voice. I expect that as I progress through my PhD, my confidence in my own voice will emerge.

Thomas said...

Thanks, Anthea. All the best with the PhD. My view is that there is really no substitute for knowing what you're talking about. (See this post.) The best thing to tell your student is that she should write what she does understand. You never reach a "full" understanding. As Donald Davidson said about language: it's not so much about learning parts of a subject, as a matter of partly learning.