Friday, March 6, 2009

Plagiarism - What Is It? Part 1

In the academic community, it is not debated that plagiarism is Bad. Cases of student plagiarism seem to abound, sometimes with impunity, and institutional policies are declaring war on it.

Late last spring, a student working for me and for whom I had positive regard, threw together a draft report before leaving for summer. The student had borrowed a significant amount of verbatim language from other sources, minimally citing them and using no quotation marks. As is often the case, these problems stuck out to me because the direct language was phrased in a manner so unlike the student's writing. My institution's policy addresses these matters as follows, and I paraphrase:
  • Plagiarism - intentional passing off of another person's words, ideas or work as if it is one’s own
  • Unattributed Copying - passing off of another person's words, ideas or work as if it is one’s own because of reckless or grossly negligent practices
  • Verbatim copying of another person's words, ideas or work without proper attribution is presumed plagiarism and conclusively presumed unattributed copying.
I am curious that my college's policy seems to draw a distinction of intent between plagiarism and unattributed copying; but when verbatim copying occurs, the policy considers them to be essentially the same. Moreover, whether deemed plagiarism or unattributed copying, the accused is equally subject to a highly formal process involving a complaint, a determination whether to prosecute, and a lengthy hearing, and which can equally conclude with suspension or expulsion.

In this blog entry I have carefully paraphrased my college's policies because I do not wish to single out my college or have to cite the student code of conduct. And yet, am I not plagiarizing the code of conduct - according to the code itself - because it further provides that paraphrasing without clearly indicating and crediting the source also constitutes plagiarism or unattributed copying?

I suspect that a key difficulty with defining plagiarism is that in the process of doing so we may rather quickly reach some bizarre if not absurd results. Yet, it is not something we can ignore. And so in this blog series, "Plagiarism - What Is It?"I will explore just what it is we think or know plagiarism to be.

In closing, I shall leave the reader with an idea I have formulated (or think I have), and will reflect back upon it, as I suspect it will be a kind of beacon, or homing mechanism, when I drift too far out. I have Googled this idea, these words as put together, to see if really I am just stealing someone else's idea or words. And they seem to be my own.

"Artists are perhaps the most plagiarized and the least paid, though they complain about it a lot less than journalists and scholars."

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- Lap Cat Scholar