Information Sheet #136

August 26, 2002


[The following reflections on plagiarism are from Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World, a collection of essays edited by Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy (State University of New York Press, 1999).  This excellent anthology explores the complexities of plagiarism–and suggests the value of analyzing these issues from a variety of perspectives.  –Bob Marrs]

• Plagiarism is not a legal term.  It is not necessarily a violation of a country’s copyright laws.  Plagiarism is an issue of the creative process, of the manner in which a text was composed; copyright infringement is concerned with the creative result.   Copyright laws do not protect ideas or facts but only the way those are expressed or compiled.  Copyright does not protect older documents no longer covered by the copyright statute, texts composed by government employees, or other texts in the public domain.  Copyright law only deals with the harmful economic affects of copying.  Copyright law is indifferent to the issue of attribution and intention; only the copyright owner has the right to sue.  (Laurie Stearns, “Copy Wrong: Plagiarism, Process, Property, and the Law,” 9-12)

• Borrowing information and insights from sources is necessary, inevitable.  A writer does not create a text out of a void; creation depends on bringing together materials from a multitude of sources and experiences.  “The essence of the modern understanding of Plagiarism is a failure of the creative process through the author’s failure either to transform the original material or to identify its source.”  Plagiarism is the opposite of forgery.  Plagiarism presents another’s work as one’s own; forgery presents one’s work as someone else’s.  (Stearns, 7)

• According to the Modern Language Association, plagiarism is:

–Repeating another’s sentences as your own.

–Adopting apt phrasing as your own.

–Paraphrasing someone else’s argument so it appears as your own.

–Presenting someone else’s ideas as your own.

–Not revealing sources of data or ideas to give the impression this material came from you.

“To plagiarize is to give the impression that you have written or thought something that you have in fact borrowed from another.”  (Stearns, 9)

• Written texts are a curious kind of property.  When written, the words are the exclusive possession of the author, but these texts can do no good unless they are distributed.  Yet once distributed to one or more readers, the words cannot be retrieved.  Authors want to communicate and yet they also want to maintain control over this intellectual property used in the communication.  Thus there are problems with the “property metaphor” when applied to words and writing because writing depends on the cooperation between the writer and readers, a partnership that can not well be governed by traditional ideas about property ownership.  (Stearns, 13)

• What is plagiarism is determined by the age and culture in which you live.  Prior to the 18th century Enlightenment, all ideas and knowledge was created by God and all people should have free access to that knowledge.  With the arrival of Enlightenment humanism appears the assumption that knowledge is created by human beings–and can be “owned” by the people who create that knowledge.  (C. Jan Swearingen, “Originality, Authenticity, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Augustine’s Chinese Cousins,” 19-20.)

• “Plagiarism relies on the notion of exclusionary ownership, a kind of intellectual land-rush model in which the first to stake a claim on a concept, term, title, or even idea from that moment forward must be cited as its author.”  For St. Augustine, as for Plato, it was impossible for someone to own the truth; individuals sought to find truth, not to create it.  In the ancient world, copying sources was part of the standard procedure for composing texts.  For example, consider the writing of books in the Bible.    (Swearingen, 21)

• Plagiarism became a major problem in the United States during the middle of the 19th century with the increased reliance on students’ written texts for purposes of evaluation.  Historians of post-secondary education in the 19th century have concluded that cheating was rampant, a routine element in college life. (Sue Carter Simmons, “Competing Notions of Authorship: A Historical Look at Students and Textbooks on Plagiarism and Cheating,” 42-43)

• “A professor of sociology recounts an experience with plagiarism in which a student had presented, without attribution, sections that the professor could readily identify as originating with C. Wright Mills.  When he confronted the student with the paper and the course, the student explained his strategy: ‘I figured in high school you copy from the encyclopedia.  In college you copy from a real book.’” (Alice M. Roy, “Whose Words These Are I Think I Know: Plagiarism, the Postmodern, and Faculty Attitudes,” 55)

• Allusion or Plagiarism?  T. S. Eliot writes in “Philip Massinger”:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.  The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

Successful allusions to other texts depend on the reader’s educated recognition of those allusions.  “What precisely distinguishes allusion from quotation?  Is an unmarked quotation an allusion?  Is an unmarked allusion a plagiarism?  Can allusions ever be considered plagiarism?  Where does quotation end and allusion begin?  The posing of such questions depends at least in part upon a postmodern understanding of textuality.   Roland Barthes writes that the Text is ‘woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages . . . antecedent or contemporary, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. . . . The citations which go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read; they are quotations without inverted commas.” [Barthes, “From Work to Text”]  In the 19th century Emerson made a similar point in his essay “Quotation and Originality”:

Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant,–and this commonly on the ground of other readers, or hearing,–that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality.  All minds quote.  Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment.  There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands.  By necessity, by proclivity and by delight, we all quote.

(Kevin J. H. Dettmar, “The Illusion of Modernist Allusion and the Politics of Postmodern Plagiarism,” 102)

• In 1975 Kathy Acker published a novel The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henry Toulouse Lautrec that included a 1,500 word passage from Harold Robbins’ novel The Pirate.  Acker changed the third-person passage into a first-person narrative and the subject of the narrative has been changed from the wife of an oil baron to Jacqueline Onassis.  The passage in Acker’s text is set off typographically and given the title “the true story of a rich woman: I Want to Be Raped Every Night!”  When Acker was accused of plagiarism, she responded that she had not plagiarized but “pirated” The Pirate.  For Acker’s interpretation of the situation, read her story “Dead Doll Humility,” available at the Postmodern Culture World Wide Web site.

• Plagiarism-hunters: are they as bad as the plagiarists?  Discourse is power.  To control discourse is to exert power over one’s rivals.  To determine that someone is a plagiarist is thus a strategy for the accuser to maintain authority over the accused.  “Constructed as an authorial act, [plagiarism] may be seen as a symptom of illegitimate desires on the part of the plagiarist to achieve symbolic power by misappropriating to him- or herself the authority of another; construed, however, as an act of reception, plagiarism–or rather accusations of it–reveals intentions which must be ascribed to the accuser.  Historically, the motives ascribed to plagiarism-hunters are seldom more noble than those ascribed to ‘plagiarists’; the former, usually styled as pedantic critics, are traditionally among the most reviled members of a generally reviled category of men of letters.”  (Marilyn Randall, “Imperial Plagiarism,” 132)

•  One of the oldest metaphors for describing plagiarism is the image of the “conquest.”  In her essay “Imperial Plagiarism” Randall notes that “from Antiquity to the Enlightenment, the conquest and pillage of foreign (cultural) territories was a positive metaphor expressing the enriching effects of the importation of foreign cultural property.”  The applicable perspective was best expressed by J. B. Marini: “To steal from one’s compatriots is theft, but to steal from foreigners is conquest.”  This attitude corresponds with Nietzsche’s observation that to translate means to conquer.  Two other images of the writer as translator were of the honey bee making honey from pollen or of the body digesting food.   During the European Renaissance, translations and adaptations of Greek and Roman texts were understood as desirable forms of imitation. 

• “One way to define the line between collaboration and plagiarism is to look at the degree of ownership of ideas.  We get to own others’ ideas by understanding and thinking about them, by making them our own through reflection and integration into our own thinking processes. . . . Different fields of study tend to use sources in different ways and it must be the responsibility of advanced instruction in every field to teach the responsible use of sources as it is done in the discipline.”   (Edward M. White, “Student Plagiarism as an Institutional and Social Issue,” 207)

• Individual faculty members can reduce plagiarism in their courses if they help students acquire ownership over ideas that will usually be taken from others.  “When a writing assignment attends to the writing process, instead of only the end product, plagiarism becomes almost impossible. . . . If the assignment is precisely tailored to new course material, students must do their own work and all source materials must necessarily pass through the writer’s mind. . . . If teachers reconceive their function as coaches as well as judges of student written work, they will involve themselves with their students’ writing process.”  (White, 208)

• “Unless professors [distinguish] clearly and forcibly between using sources to substitute for ideas as opposed to using sources to help demonstrate ideas, and then insist that students develop their own ideas about the sources . . .  honest students are likely to plagiarize by mistake.  If the goal of a paper is merely to show that the student has done work and read sources (‘retelling knowledge’), there is not much for the writer to do but summarize, paraphrase, quote–and plagiarize.  Unfortunately, many college assignments in fact ask only for retelling of knowledge, and few faculty bother to teach their students about the proper use of sources.”  (White, 208)

•  Four metaphors dominate academics’ attacks on plagiarism:

• Plagiarism is stealing and is morally wrong.

• Plagiarism is an ethical violation of the students’ academic code of conduct; the students shirk their responsibilities by using the work of others.

• Plagiarism is using material without giving proper credit.

• Plagiarism is intellectual laziness, demonstrating the failure of the student to function as a member of the academic community; the result is that sources of information are confused or left hidden. 

(David Leight, “Plagiarism as Metaphor,” 221-230)

• A Grammar for Citations

When we think about documentation and footnotes and bibliographies and the rules for citing sources, it is inevitable that the subject of plagiarism gets introduced.  Avoiding the perils of plagiarism requires a skillful employment of citation practices.  The failure to cite sources properly can result in embarrassment, censure, and even expulsion from the academic community.

While student writers naturally focus on the dangers from being caught plagiarizing, it is important that they focus their attention more fully on the value of documentation and citation procedures and how they establish a writer’s membership in a “discourse community.”  By using the research and documentation strategies of the academic community, the writer creates an essential context for any new ideas presented in the text.  One excellent discussion of this issue is available in “The Role of Scholarly Citations in Disciplinary Economies,” an article by Shirley K. Rose published in Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World, edited by Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy.

Rose suggests that we view the use of documentary citations as a means for creating and maintaining knowledge within a field.  Citations are “attempts to create a coherence among texts that would otherwise remain isolated and distinct, attempts to negotiate a role in the community discourse, attempts to organize a turn in the disciplinary conversation.”  Citations enable the writer to transform the dispersed sources encountered during research into a sequential, structured hierarchy.  “Citations establish relations among texts, relationships that organize a field of inquiry, create order, and allow for accountability.”

Rose offers a system for understanding how different kinds of citations organize the history of the conversation on a particular topic.  Rose’s proposed classification system is based on an essay “The Grammar of Coherence” by W. Ross Winterowd.  In this essay, Winterowd identifies seven “structural relationships” that give coherence to a written text.  While Winterowd focuses on elements that establish relationships between sentences and between larger units in a text (such as paragraphs as chapters), Rose appropriates and applies this classification scheme it to citation practices in academic writing.  Rose suggests that scholars’ documentation practices reflect a grammar of citations based on eight basic relationships:

Coordinate (establishing parallels between sources).  “Use of coordinative citations establishes the replicability of knowledge products in a discipline.”  They help to “verify the reliability of the knowledge.”

      Her ideas were supported by the research of Smith (1976), Jones (1980), and Miller (1992).

Opposite (establishing differences between sources).  Oppositional citations stress the knowledge-making process within a field, particularly a “discipline’s capacity for self-critique.”

      Her ideas appeared convincing, but Mitchell (1982) and Harris (1993) demonstrated that major factors had been overlooked.

Generative (establishment of cause-effect relationships).  “These citations value the knowledge-making activities of a disciplinary discourse community.”  Evidence that the production of new knowledge leads to the production of more new knowledge.

      The research of Smith (1976) and Jones (1980) convinced Miller (1992) that the old models were no longer satisfactory.

Consequential (current research a consequence of previous work).  These citations emphasize the ways in which knowledge-making is based upon contributions by earlier scholars within a discipline.

      Williams’ research (1998) was the result of Miller’s introduction of a new methodology (1992).

Apposite (either “this” or “that”).  “By naming categories and placing texts within those categories, appositional citations establish that the field is not chaotic.”

      Miller and his team (1992) had a choice of following the research of Smith (1976) or Paterson (1978).

Exemplary (examples demonstrating connections in a field).  The presence of exemplary citations suggests “that within an area of study or category of texts, one text can stand for all, which can also be understood as a claim to uniformity and reliability.”

      The findings in the research of Miller (1992) matched with what had been independently discovered by Nelson (1990).

Sequential (a narrative which organizes the citations in a field).  Sequential citations highlight the chronological order of sources, demonstrating a discipline’s development of knowledge.

      Smith (1976) was the first to undertake such a large-scale research project, but Simons (1978) and Jones (1978) would soon attempt similar experiments.

Iterative (quote, paraphrase, or summary from previously published work).  These citations, which re-circulate knowledge within a discipline, illustrate that knowledge within a field is re-producible.

      As Smith notes, “research demands careful attention to citation practices” (12).

If we keep in mind this “grammar of coherence” underlying citation practices, it’s evident why the practice of plagiarism is “intolerable in academic discourse communities not only because it is equivalent to theft of the knowledge product or because it constitutes unauthorized circulation of knowledge, but also because such an inaccuracy threatens to undermine a discipline’s claim to orderly, reliable production and distribution of useful, verifiable knowledge.”  (Shirley K. Rose, “The Role of Scholarly Citations in Disciplinary Economies,” 241-250.  In Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World, edited by Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy.  State University of New York Press, 1999.)

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