I don’t hate plagiarism because it’s “stealing” or “cheating” or any of that. Sure it’s ethically incorrect, but everybody knows that. I don’t condone it, certainly, but that in itself isn’t enough to make me ponder in the early morning.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen plagiarism in action at the lowest levels of education, and at the highest levels of scholarship. I’ve seen it’s consequences, and I’ve the way it eats up the lives and risks the careers of those who think it’s important to expose a high-profile plagiarist. I’ve seen this stuff up close and personal, and it’s not pretty. Heartbreaking, terrifying, sad, disappointing… but not ponder-worthy, generally.
No, what makes me ponder is the way plagiarism has insinuated itself into undergraduate education in what I think are unhealthy (and sometimes flat out improper) ways. Sure, it’s important that undergraduates learn the ethics of scholarly communication. But it is not necessary to have plagiarism be the bully whip behind other problems of scholarly communication.
Take, for instance, citation. Students are told to cite their sources so that they don’t plagiarize. What does this do? Well, it doesn’t deter the plagiarists. No, instead it sends a steady stream of freaked out kids to my office right about finals time, each of whom is trying to figure out when to cite and when not to as much as they’re trying to figure out where the quotation marks and italics go in MLA style. It’s often not very clear when a particular statement needs a citation, and the poor students are terrified that they’ll miss-step and inadvertently plagiarize.
And really, however heretical it sounds, I don’t think that citation and plagiarism are inherently linked in the one-to-one relationship that most first-year writing courses seem to teach. Failure to cite a direct quote or a paraphrase constitutes plagiarism. But the act of citation itself should be much more a context-building act than an act of punishment avoidance. So when these students land on my doorstep, the only thing that seems to make sense (barring having us both read through the paper and discuss every sentence) is to explain that citation allows your readers to situate themselves in your context. You cite to give credit, but you also cite to allow your readers to find further information. So if you state a “fact” (one of those nebulous things that don’t need citing but that nobody can explain because lots of “facts” need citations, too) and you think your readers might benefit from more context, cite it. If it’s a “fact” that your friend’s roommate would already know and, more than that, already know or be able to accurately construct its historical, social, theoretical context… there’s no need to cite it.
Oh, and one thing that citation is not in any way related to is copyright. It does not make it OK to copy an image if you include the image URL or other citation information. Copyright is a legal process; citation is an ethical and communication process. Neither is related to the the other even a little bit. Including citation information is a good thing to do, but it does not eliminate or even reduce the need to weigh Fair Use or get permission. I mention this because this was the single most pervasive urban myth that we encountered when we started doing copyright training on campus.
So why do I hate plagiarism? Because I think those of us who work with undergraduates have adopted it as the boogie man of scholarly communication and then generalized it to domains where it doesn’t belong. In the process, it’s become unhelpful to students. Using punishment-avoidance rather than scholarly communication as the sole impetus for citation has actually made the process of deciding when to cite harder rather than easier. Even more importantly, it has shut them off from some of the joys and richness of using citations in their own research. As one of my colleagues likes to tell her students, “The literature in each field indexes itself” via it’s citations. But if students skip over reading these citations, perceiving them simply as legalistic mechanisms that the authors are using to cover their behinds, they miss out on uncovering new pieces of context surrounding their topics.