"Plagiarism Is Not a Big Moral Deal"
August 9th, 2010
The New York Times
August 9th, 2010
The New York Times
During my tenure as the dean of a college, I determined that an underperforming program should be closed. My wife asked me if I had ever set foot on the premises, and when I answered “no,” she said that I really should do that before wielding the axe.
And so I did, in the company of my senior associate dean. We toured the offices and spoke to students and staff. In the course of a conversation, one of the program’s co-directors pressed on me his latest book. I opened it to the concluding chapter, read the first two pages, and remarked to my associate dean, “This is really good.”
But on the way back to the administration building, I suddenly flashed on the pages I admired and began to suspect that the reason I liked them so much was that I had written them. And sure enough, when I got back to my office and pulled one of my books off the shelf, there the pages were, practically word for word. I telephoned the co-director, and told him that I had been looking at his book, and wanted to talk about it. He replied eagerly that he would come right over, but when he came in I pointed him to the two books — his and mine — set out next to each other with the relevant passages outlined by a marker.
He turned white and said that he and his co-author had divided the responsibilities for the book’s chapters and that he had not written (perhaps “written” should be in quotes) this one. I contacted the co-author and he wrote back to me something about graduate student researchers who had given him material that was not properly identified. I made a few half-hearted efforts to contact the book’s publisher, but I didn’t persist and I pretty much forgot about it, although the memory returns whenever I read yet another piece (like one that appeared recently in The Times) about the ubiquity of plagiarism, the failure of students to understand what it is, the suspicion that they know what it is but don’t care, and the outdatedness of notions like originality and single authorship on which the intelligibility of plagiarism as a concept depends.
Whenever it comes up plagiarism is a hot button topic and essays about it tend to be philosophically and morally inflated. But there are really only two points to make. (1) Plagiarism is a learned sin. (2) Plagiarism is not a philosophical issue.
Of course every sin is learned. Very young children do not distinguish between themselves and the world; they assume that everything belongs to them; only in time and through the conditioning of experience do they learn the distinction between mine and thine and so come to acquire the concept of stealing. The concept of plagiarism, however, is learned in more specialized contexts of practice entered into only by a few; it’s hard to get from the notion that you shouldn’t appropriate your neighbor’s car to the notion that you should not repeat his words without citing him.
The rule that you not use words that were first uttered or written by another without due attribution is less like the rule against stealing, which is at least culturally universal, than it is like the rules of golf. I choose golf because its rules are so much more severe and therefore so much odder than the rules of other sports. In baseball you can (and should) steal bases and hide the ball. In football you can (and should) fake a pass or throw your opponent to the ground. In basketball you will be praised for obstructing an opposing player’s view of the court by waving your hands in front of his face. In hockey … well let’s not go there. But in golf, if you so much as move the ball accidentally while breathing on it far away from anyone who might have seen what you did, you must immediately report yourself and incur the penalty. (Think of what would happen to the base-runner called safe at home-plate who said to the umpire, “Excuse me, sir, but although you missed it, I failed to touch third base.”)
Golf’s rules have been called arcane and it is not unusual to see play stopped while a P.G.A. official arrives with rule book in hand and pronounces in the manner of an I.R.S. official. Both fans and players are aware of how peculiar and “in-house” the rules are; knowledge of them is what links the members of a small community, and those outside the community (most people in the world) can be excused if they just don’t see what the fuss is about.
Plagiarism is like that; it’s an insider’s obsession. If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no. But if you’re a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some) and if you’re a politician it may not occur to you, as it did not at one time to Joe Biden, that you’re doing anything wrong when you appropriate the speech of a revered statesman.
And if you’re a student, plagiarism will seem to be an annoying guild imposition without a persuasive rationale (who cares?); for students, learning the rules of plagiarism is worse than learning the irregular conjugations of a foreign language. It takes years, and while a knowledge of irregular verbs might conceivably come in handy if you travel, knowledge of what is and is not plagiarism in this or that professional practice is not something that will be of very much use to you unless you end up becoming a member of the profession yourself. It follows that students who never quite get the concept right are by and large not committing a crime; they are just failing to become acclimated to the conventions of the little insular world they have, often through no choice of their own, wandered into. It’s no big moral deal; which doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that plagiarism shouldn’t be punished — if you’re in our house, you’ve got to play by our rules — just that what you’re punishing is a breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe.
Now if plagiarism is an idea that makes sense only in the precincts of certain specialized practices and is not a normative philosophical notion, inquiries into its philosophical underpinnings are of no practical interest or import. In recent years there have been a number of assaults on the notion of originality, issuing from fields as diverse as literary theory, history, cultural studies, philosophy, anthropology, Internet studies. Single authorship, we have been told, is a recent invention of a bourgeois culture obsessed with individualism, individual rights and the myth of progress. All texts are palimpsests of earlier texts; there’s been nothing new under the sun since Plato and Aristotle and they weren’t new either; everything belongs to everybody. In earlier periods works of art were produced in workshops by teams; the master artisan may have signed them, but they were communal products. In some cultures, even contemporary ones, the imitation of standard models is valued more than work that sets out to be path-breaking. (This was one of the positions in the famous quarrel between the ancients and the moderns in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries.)
Arguments like these (which I am reporting, not endorsing) have been so successful in academic circles that the very word “originality” often appears in quotation marks, and it has seemed to many that there is a direct path from this line of reasoning to the conclusion that plagiarism is an incoherent, even impossible, concept and that a writer or artist accused of plagiarism is being faulted for doing something that cannot be avoided. R.M. Howard makes the point succinctly “If there is no originality and no literary property, there is no basis for the notion of plagiarism” (“College English,” 1995).
That might be true or at least plausible if, in order to have a basis, plagiarism would have to stand on some philosophical ground. But the ground plagiarism stands on is more mundane and firm; it is the ground of disciplinary practices and of the histories that have conferred on those practices a strong, even undoubted (though revisable) sense of what kind of work can be appropriately done and what kind of behavior cannot be tolerated. If it is wrong to plagiarize in some context of practice, it is not because the idea of originality has been affirmed by deep philosophical reasoning, but because the ensemble of activities that take place in the practice would be unintelligible if the possibility of being original were not presupposed.
And if there should emerge a powerful philosophical argument saying there’s no such thing as originality, its emergence needn’t alter or even bother for a second a practice that can only get started if originality is assumed as a baseline. It may be (to offer another example), as I have argued elsewhere, that there’s no such thing as free speech, but if you want to have a free speech regime because you believe that it is essential to the maintenance of democracy, just forget what Stanley Fish said — after all it’s just a theoretical argument — and get down to it as lawyers and judges in fact do all the time without the benefit or hindrance of any metaphysical rap. Everyday disciplinary practices do not rest on a foundation of philosophy or theory; they rest on a foundation of themselves; no theory or philosophy can either prop them up or topple them. As long as the practice is ongoing and flourishing its conventions will command respect and allegiance and flouting them will have negative consequences.
This brings me back to the (true) story I began with. Whether there is something called originality or not, the two scholars who began their concluding chapter by reproducing two of my pages are professionally culpable. They took something from me without asking and without acknowledgment, and they profited — if only in the currency of academic reputation — from work that I had done and signed. That’s the bottom line and no fancy philosophical argument can erase it.
"The Ontology of Plagiarism: Part Two"
August 16th, 2010
The New York Times
August 16th, 2010
The New York Times
The huge number of negative comments on my column arguing that plagiarism is more a professional than a moral infraction fall mainly into two groups: those who criticize me for an argument I don’t make and those who offer as a rebuttal an argument I do make.
I do not offer a “glib apology for plagiarism” (David Rosen) or say that “it doesn’t matter if you take credit for someone else’s ideas” (M.S.J.).
What I say is that plagiarism matters a lot in contexts and cultures where there is a name for it, and the name is understood to be accompanied by “thou shalt not.” In the academy, where ideas are the currency and the standard of value, plagiarism should not be tolerated — one of my former students, Giles Slade, notes that I don’t tolerate it for a second — and it should be severely dealt with. No student bent on plagiarizing should take comfort from my column.
The question (and the heart of the disagreement between the readers and me) is what are you punishing when you come down hard on an act of unattributed borrowing? Hundreds of respondents to the column answered theft or fraud or lying or a wrong against God or plain evil.
Not only is this inflation of an institutional no-no into the sum of the Ten Commandments a bit over the top; it is decidedly unhelpful when you want to tell students exactly what plagiarism is and why they should avoid it.
If, on the first day of class, you start talking about the moral abyss of stealing and the potential unraveling of civilization (phrases that turn up in the comments) your students’ eyes will glaze over and they will think they are back in church. But if you say to the students, “The enterprise you and I are engaged in here is underwritten by the assumption of originality and the possibility and desirability of the advancement of thought,” you can then say that these assumptions and the outcomes they look forward to — new insights, solutions to problems — will be undermined if students and researchers take the easy way out and just copy something someone else has already done.
In short, nothing will have been learned, which is a point made by many respondents against me, but is actually a point that supports the distinction I want to insist on between moral and professional infractions. If learning is the goal, engaging in behavior that shortcuts the learning process is a bad idea; institutionally bad, not morally bad.
Several posters agree. Aardvark declares that “plagiarism is a problem of learning” because it goes against the instructor’s obligation “to insist that students do work that will benefit them.” “Morality, punishment, cheating,” Aardvark concludes, “are all very secondary concerns.” Scott adds that students who “commit plagiarism . . . have lost an opportunity to improve their ability to reason or acquire useful skills.” Therefore, he continues, “plagiarism is a moral hazard because it incrementally burdens society with a populace that is unable to navigate its complexities.” I don’t see what the phrase “moral hazard” adds to this observation, except for bit of polemical pizazz. Citizens who are incapable of thinking through society’s problems do present a hazard, but it is a hazard to the making of good political or economic decisions; the “moral” part seems an unnecessary add-on.
The moral (in the non-moral sense of “lesson”) is given by dobes: academics should “remember that they are training their students in professionalism, not character.” (Character may or may not follow.) Olga elaborates: If “the problem is that students don’t understand what it means to say and show that they know something . . . we should give courses on methodology — make it about how to learn something and how to prove it, not how not to cheat.”
The researches of professor of anthropology Susan D. Blum (to whose work I was alerted by Richard) support Olga. She reports that “treating plagiarism either as morally wrong or as a crime” often doesn’t work. “Strict admonishment,” she says, is “inadequate, whether as timeless morality or universal practice.” Instead, she counsels, focus on a “set of skills to be learned,” for “students need to be taught the genre requirements of academic writing” (Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 20, 2009).
The genre requirements of other kinds of writing are less strict. David Chowes asks, “What is the difference between the president of our country using many speech writers and a college student ‘plagerizing’?” The difference is the genre or context of practice. Presidents are responsible for waging wars, building economies, conducting foreign policy and much more. It is understood and accepted that laboring over speeches they are obliged to give would not be the best use of their time and so we have no problem with letting them put their names to words written by others; we even anthologize them. Students, on the other hand, are not running the country; it is their job to learn things and that job is not furthered by putting their names to words written by others.
It might be tempting to say that with respect to presidents we relax the morality we enforce on students; but morality has nothing to do with it. The expectations we have of the performance of students, including the expectation that they will write their own papers, come along with the task (of learning) they are engaged in. The expectations we have of the performance of presidents also come along with the task they are engaged in and do not include the expectation that they will utter or sign only words they have originated. That’s all there is to it.
Basically, my argument is deflationary; it says, if you want to think about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior in a particular line of work, look at its goals and values and then reason from them to what the shape of activities on the ground should be. Don’t look to large moral platitudes or big philosophical concepts, for they will only get in the way of figuring out what you should or should not be doing. That is why I say that strictures against plagiarism needn’t have philosophical foundations; they follow (or don’t) from the nature of the enterprise. Once that has been specified, the rules and decorums will be perspicuous; and within the precincts of those rules it is always possible to say about a piece of behavior that it is wrong, and by wrong mean no more than that it goes against the rules.
A large number of posters asked how I could use a phrase like “professionally culpable” after I had said that plagiarism is no big moral deal (notice I didn’t say it was no big deal). Isn’t “culpable” a moral word? Actually, no. “Culpable” means reproachable, deserving of reproof, available to criticism, all judgments that need no moral dimension in order to be invoked. We reprove jaywalkers, reproach people who cut ahead of us in line, criticize professors who fail to keep office hours or who come to class unprepared, and we also fault, and discipline, those who do not cite their sources; and we don’t consign these wrongdoers (again a word that need not be morally freighted) to some circle of Dante’s Hell.
YMM makes the point succinctly: “I have never seen plagiarism as a matter of morality, but rather a professional and academic failing.” All failings are blameworthy, but not all failings are moral. Pointing out and, when appropriate, punishing a failing — an infraction, a deviation from norms — is sufficient. You can always tack on some high-sounding moral/philosophical phrases and imperatives, but they will be, at best, just icing on the cake. David Rogers puts it better than I did: “Stanley Fish is not saying that plagiarism is ok. He is saying that as professionals, we should deal with it professionally, without calling down the fire and brimstone of our favorite moralistic deities.” Amen.
This brings me to a second assertion I don’t make. I don’t say, as several posters charge, that rules against plagiarism are called into question by the deconstruction (in some quarters) of the idea of originality. I introduce those arguments only in order to assert their irrelevance to any enterprise founded on the presumption of originality as both a possibility and a value. A theoretical debunking of a concept has no effect on a practice whose very shape depends on that concept’s being firmly in place.
That about covers it, I think, except for a few questions readers asked of a more personal nature. Here are the answers:
I don’t play golf. I’ve tried it periodically but I could never get the hang of the woods. Besides, what kind of sport is it where you can’t hit anyone except by accident?
I did close the program, but the action had nothing to do with the uncredited appropriation of my work.
The headline, a quotation from the column, replaced an earlier version — “Plagiarism is Neither a Moral Nor a Philosophical Concept” — that was thought to be prosaic and not snappy enough. Perhaps we should have stuck with the first one.
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