My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture
reviewed by Tim S. Roberts - January 11, 2010
In her book, Susan Blum suggests that the real problem of academic dishonesty arises primarily from a lack of communication between two distinct cultures within the university setting. On one hand, professors and administrators regard plagiarism as a serious academic crime, an ethical transgression, even a sin against an ethos of individualism and originality. Students, on the other hand, revel in sharing, in multiplicity, in accomplishment at any cost.
Many researchers and practitioners adopt what might be perceived to be moral solutions, in the belief that the problem can be cured or at least, greatly reduced by the implementation of honor codes, or the teaching of ethical behavior, or both.
Before going into more detail, however, I must confess both of the above two paragraphs are blatant examples of plagiarism. The first comes from the flyleaf of Blums own book, and I have quoted it just about word for word, without putting it in italics or indicating in any way that it is taken from another source.
So, I plead guilty. Would it have mattered if I had changed the wording around? Perhaps if I had altered some of the nouns and the odd verb, altered the syntax, for example? What if Id rephrased the paragraph almost entirely, so that it ran along the following lines: Professors and students can have very different views regarding the nature of academic dishonesty. Whereas the former tend to regard plagiarism as a serious crime, or perhaps even a moral sin, students tend to have what might be termed a more pragmatic view, based on sharing and accomplishing the task in hand.
Here, Ive omitted some of the original words, and added others, to such an extent that it is doubtful that any reader would link the revised paragraph with the original. So is this not plagiarism? Or is it plagiarism, because the ideas conveyed are almost identical? But then again, arent almost all of our ideas based on others ideas, perhaps slightly revised by our own past experience?
What about the second paragraph? Well thats plagiarized from my own article (Roberts, 2008, p. 6), though Ive changed the odd word here and there. But this is clearly a case of self-plagiarism, where Ive used words before and published them in a new place (amongst researchers presenting at conferences and publishing in journals, this would seem to be incredibly common). Does the fact that it is self-plagiarism (or that it is incredibly common) make it less of a sin?
It is just such difficulties that Blum discusses throughout her book. Her style is a pleasant surprise at the same time learned and yet still easy-to-read, a rare combination indeed. A brief synopsis: of the five chapters comprising the main body of the book, the first discusses what plagiarism actually is, and emphasizes that even here there is room for profound disagreement. The second chapter, in some ways the strongest and most interesting in the book, looks at different views of the problem. The third discusses what is meant by authenticity, and whether or not it is possible to be truly authentic in our words and deeds. The fourth examines the environment in which current students find themselves, while the fifth attempts to look at what reactions to plagiarism are or might be appropriate.
Few academics would be so naïve as to believe that all students attend college through a sheer love of learning. Rather, many, perhaps the majority, are there for less idealistic reasons. These may include viewing study as an unfortunate but necessary step to getting a job, or a promotion, or indeed just an additional few letters to add after ones name. Students may be there just for the sporting or social events, or because their parents or friends thought it would be a good idea. For some students, therefore, academic learning will be very important; for others, it may be less so.
The book leans heavily on interviews with students, many from the University of Notre Dame (which Blum rather quaintly anonymizes by referring to it throughout as Saint U). This reliance on student interviews has the effect of grounding the content in real-life experiences, which she relates to her overall thesis - that students and academic staff tend to view plagiarism in many disparate ways, and many of our current rules and procedures may benefit from a serious and thorough review.
In this context, Blum suggests that we need to decide whether plagiarism is a minor misdemeanor, or a more serious crime, or perhaps even a moral sin. The reader looking for definitive answers will not find any in this book the final chapter, intriguingly entitled the same as Lenins seminal work, What is to be Done? is, apart from the Introduction, by far the shortest in the book. But throughout the book there are plenty of views from both sides, and much food for thought.
Those looking to read more widely on this whole area will be delighted by the bibliography, which extends over some 22 pages around 500 references in all. And surely few such books include in their indices references to John Kennedy, Jack Kerouac, Martin Luther King, Madonna, and Karl Marx, amongst many other luminaries. But none of these are extraneous Kennedy is referred to in the context of James Meredith being escorted onto the Ole Miss campus in 1962, which led to more widespread integration; Kerouac to signify a certain disrespect for authority and conformity; King in the context of the many charges against him of stealing others words; Madonna as exemplifying what might be termed the performance self; and Marx re alienation, in the chapter on authenticity.
In this book, Blum does an excellent job of contextualizing students real-world experiences, and relating them to the problem at hand. The book includes all good thought-provoking stuff, and hopefully it is the precursor to further work on this increasingly important topic.
Roberts, T. S. (2008). Student plagiarism in an online world: An introduction. In T.S. Roberts (Ed.), Student plagiarism in an online world: Problems and solutions. Hershey, PA: Idea Group Reference.