February 2012
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A little note on plagiarism

I’m in the midst of writing a response to a student essay on plagiarism. In the essay, the student claims that few people actually steal, that students are “confused” by the accessibility of the internet (thinking that the internet belongs to them), that music sampling is certainly not wrong, etc. The students briefly mentions Malcolm Gladwell’s story about seeing a line he wrote used in play–at first he was angry, then flattered.

The student’s essay lacks focus, etc, but my comments (reprinted below) deal with the lack of counter-argument:

Many counter-arguments to this piece immediately come to mind. For example, as a teacher, I have seen many, many students “wrongfully claim credit and ownership for a project” (1). Students have bought papers online. They have copied off of each other’s papers. They have even claimed that they “had no choice” but to do so because they believe all students cheat, which is an insult to all of us who got through college without cheating. (Even if the cheating students were right about everyone cheating, which they aren’t, they would still have a choice). 

I have been the victim of plagiarism in another way. A paper I had published online was found posted on a cheat site. The site claimed that the author (me!) had given permission for this paper to be used by this site and by students. I had done no such thing. I threatened to sue the site if they did not remove my essay immediately. In a less dramatic example, a man copied an article I published for Mental Floss on his blog. He did not reference my name, the name of the original magazine, or anything else—except his own name. To anyone who didn’t know better, it would look like he wrote my piece.

The cheat site and the blogger were not “inspired” by my research, by my time, by my work. They were thieves. However vague some definitions of plagiarism are, some cases like these are unquestionabl

In terms of the more questionable cases, I don’t understand why these people with questionable cases can’t do what we do in academia. When I want to use another person’s words, I cite that person. If someone wants to use Malcolm Gladwell’s words, why can’t there be a line in the author’s notes about it? If someone wants to sample a piece of someone else’s music, why can’t that person mention it in the liner notes on the CD?

Weird Al Yankovic, for example, always tells you what artist’s song he’s parodying. He also gets permission from artists before using their work. Notably, he doesn’t have to do this, as his creations are protected under the copyright exception made for parodies. While one artist (Coolio) claims Yankovic didn’t ask permission (I don’t believe Coolio’s side of the story here), Yankovic still credited him fully.

The student’s point seems to be that “plagiarism” is too vague a term to pursue action against plagiarizers. In some cases, this is simply not true. In others, reasonable, easy steps can be taken to acknowledge how someone else has inspired us. If s/he has inspired us, doesn’t s/he deserve a respectful acknowledgement of that fact?

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