Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Re: “Lines on Plagiarism Blur for Students in the Digital Age,” by Trip Gabriel

Trip Gabriel, “Lines on Plagiarism Blur for Students in the Digital Age” (h/t Kishore)

I kinda feel sorry for the author of this article. There has to be this pretense of objectivity, this sense that there’s a real inquiry going on:

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

Professors who have studied plagiarism do not try to excuse it — many are champions of academic honesty on their campuses — but rather try to understand why it is so widespread.

It’s the reporter’s job to report, and here the report has to take the thesis seriously. Or should it? Maybe the whole field of figuring out “why students cheat” is full of crap, and maybe this is the worst article ever written since it can’t simply see that a student brazen enough to do this –

At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.

– is going to keep up the appearance that they don’t understand right from wrong. They can sense gullibility they can take advantage of a mile away. I would encourage anyone who thinks that the Internet and file-sharing have dulled this student’s sense of “what belongs to who” to try and take one quote from a paper that student wrote honestly, or a lyric or sample that student made, or whatnot. The fact that student would instantly be trying to gut the person who stole from him makes my case.

In fact, I can’t emphasize “gut” enough. Rutgers-Camden is where I went to school, and sure enough, it shows up as an example in the article of everything that’s wrong:

Sarah Brookover, a senior at the Rutgers campus in Camden, N.J., said many of her classmates blithely cut and paste without attribution.

“This generation has always existed in a world where media and intellectual property don’t have the same gravity,” said Ms. Brookover, who at 31 is older than most undergraduates. “When you’re sitting at your computer, it’s the same machine you’ve downloaded music with, possibly illegally, the same machine you streamed videos for free that showed on HBO last night.”

Yup, that’s undergrad all over again. People cheating left and right, and other students making excuses instead of admitting that most schools in America contain people who, in any country with less opportunity, would be rotting in prison somewhere.

This article actually manages to get worse:

Ms. Blum argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs.

In an interview, she said the idea of an author whose singular effort creates an original work is rooted in Enlightenment ideas of the individual. It is buttressed by the Western concept of intellectual property rights as secured by copyright law. But both traditions are being challenged.

“Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.

So what do people do where there are Eastern concepts? Does someone in Japan make a comic book, say, and then spread the money he makes to everyone else in Japan, because he believes they made it too? It took the Enlightenment to say there was an author, and his work is attributable to him? How the hell is this Blum person employed anywhere? I’m in the wrong field: I should get into anthropology. I would be pointing out shiny objects to fellow anthropologists and they would drool with excitement. Maybe I could even get them to give me their credit cards.

I should say that the article does end on somewhat of a high note. I’m not for throwing everyone accused of cheating or plagiarism somewhere isolated to rot. I think there’s a really powerful argument to be made that in some cases, we take what we think is plagiarism way too seriously. People will get hammered for incorrect attribution even when they’re clearly not trying to steal ideas and claim them as their own. And I don’t know how “intellectual property” is compatible with the finest literature in existence; allusion can be attacked as a theft of someone’s ideas, if this “logic” is taken too far. The existence of two extremes – a heavy-handed moralism that sees everyone as a potential plagiarist and a mushy sentimentalism that can’t see people as moral actors to begin with – tells me that a lot more people need to get out of the house. One’s sense of ethics always needs to be tested by reality. So it is somewhat refreshing to see the article return to reality:

Many times, said Donald J. Dudley, who oversees the discipline office on the campus of 32,000, it was students who intentionally copied — knowing it was wrong — who were “unwilling to engage the writing process.”

“Writing is difficult, and doing it well takes time and practice,” he said.

And then there was a case that had nothing to do with a younger generation’s evolving view of authorship. A student accused of plagiarism came to Mr. Dudley’s office with her parents, and the father admitted that he was the one responsible for the plagiarism. The wife assured Mr. Dudley that it would not happen again.

Doesn’t surprise me. Socrates yells at Athens in the Cleitophon for teaching everything except justice. For some strange reason, that critique holds true for us today.


  1. Good Read. Thanks For the education…

  2. Hear here!

    I read that article the other day and had a similar reaction.

  3. In the olden days, people went to the library, photocopied stuff out of books and then went home and wrote everything out – word for word.

    I always thought it was amazing that a teacher could catch a cheater – obviously, that teacher had to be widely read or, the student had to be stupid enough to copy somebody famous.



  4. Hi Ashok,
    At work we deal with the issue of IP (Intellectual Property) and it used to be my job to surf the internet looking for sites that infringed upon our copyright. Let’s just say I’m glad I got promoted, because you could spend many hours looking for these culprits. Since we develop technical documents it turns out that several university professors had “unknowingly” violated our copyright by posting our materials as part of a syllabus or other course notes. LOL! how ironic. They promptly removed the documents or added proper credit after receiving a warning from our legal group.

  5. Justice?! Justice?! You wanna talk about Justice?!

    It is interesting the amount of justification for this behavior. I find it interesting, and yet very disingenuous. I don’t think the anthropologist mentioned above would be so lenient on her own students – that’s if she bothers to read their work – or with another academic “borrowing” her ideas without proper citation.

    In terms of justice, well, there is no justice today. All we have is fairness and warm fuzzy feelings. Justice demands repayment for a wrong, not platitudes and rationalization.

  6. It always bothers me when I come across this people plagiarizing. I’m shocked when some don’t think it’s not a big deal. It should be, it’s not your work and your pretending it is.

    It seems that plagiarism has gotten worse, since it’s easier for people to cheat. With my older sites, it was a constant chore, following up with people who’d lifted my articles about health, nutrition, etc., pasted them on their sites and tried to pass it off as their own.

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