Monday, May 18, 2009

On plagiarism

The meaning of plagiarism has been narrowed to a quasi-legal charge. “A false accusation of plagiarism,” you will be informed, if you used the word, “is defamatory.” And thus another weapon is removed from criticism’s arsenal.

Perhaps I am the last person in the world who should be complaining. I too have experienced the ambivalent kiss of plagiarism. The first chapter of my doctoral dissertation was plundered by a professor (not on my thesis committee) to whom I had made the mistake of showing it. In it I had treated the Ars Poetica as a “creative writing textbook”—the first scholar ever to do so, as I observed proudly—and the translations from Horace were my own. A couple of years later I received a packet of books for review. Imagine my surprise when I opened one to find an essay, by that same professor to whom I had shown my chapter, on the Ars Poetica as a creative writing textbook. The translations from Horace were my own, word for word, although they were attributed to Walter Jackson Bate.

Now, I happened to have an earlier draft of my professor’s essay; we had traded work-in-progress for comment and criticism, you see; and his draft included not a word about Horace. Believing I had him dead to rights, I wrote to his publisher, who disclaimed all responsibility, saying that I should have objected when the essay first appeared as a magazine article. I wrote to the professor, who replied by saying that he regarded a false accusation of plagiarism as defamatory. My position was precarious; I was a “new hire,” without tenure or status; he was a full professor at a prestigious university. In my cowardice, I let the matter drop.

I have also been obliged to deal with plagiarism in the classroom. The first time was when a former student wrote to me, several years after graduation, to confess a bad conscience: he had plagiarized the final paper in a course on modern literature. He did not seek absolution; he left his punishment to my judgment. After much advice and reflection, I asked him to contribute a series of scholarly publications in Jewish studies to the Evans Library at Texas A&M, whose holdings in the area were pathetically thin. Although some of my advisers derided me for it, this is a decision that I have never regretted.

About a decade later, I received four papers which contained an identical paragraph. In the mean time, the World Wide Web had become available, and a quick search of some of the odder phrases turned up the source—an undergraduate paper at a college in Florida. One of my students had copied the original verbatim; the other three had made more or less “selective” use of it. Again I decided upon leniency; the students were put on academic probation; they were given F’s on the paper and were required to write another in its place; the F’s were included in the final calculation of their grades; none earned higher than a C. And since then, all papers in all my classes must be passed through a plagiarism detector.

And yet these three cases have little or nothing to do with literature. They are examples of “academic misconduct.” They are the foreseeable consequences of a university system, which demands intensive writing from students and frequent publication from professors without any recognition of the difficulties involved or any concern for the sacrifice of quality to quantity. To write even minimally well is time-consuming and requires long bouts of seemingly unproductive concentration, to say nothing of the blank solitude and undisturbed quiet that most students—even some professors—want only to escape.

Plagiarism ought to be returned to literary criticism. I am thinking, for example, of Harold Ogden White’s Plagiarism and Imitation during the English Renaissance (1935). Outside academic hearings in which someone’s integrity is being questioned, the distinction between plagiarism and imitation is invaluable. It is the distinction between servility and admiration, between submitting to a writer’s cultural authority and adapting a writer’s ideas and phrases to fresh effect. Even in scholarship the distinction has disappeared; imitation is now called “creative imitation” to scrub it clean. But the disappearance merely testifies to the loss of faith in imitation as an aid to discovery.

Imitation is translation: something distinguished or striking is recast in different words, or left in pretty much its original condition and put to an entirely different use. As when Francine Prose rewrites The Mill on the Floss as Goldengrove. Plagiarism is when this is done badly—not to say something of the writer’s own, but to join a chorus already in progress.


Trevor said...

I enjoyed this. I get upset at the lost distictions between words (like uninterested and disinterested). Still not sure I agree that Shamsie's scars plagiarize Morrison's, but I am glad to understand what you meant and how to use the term in a critical context.

As for your reading and reviewing Burnt Shadows, I'm not sure you'd be doing yourself or Shamsie any favors. If you do decide to read it, though, I look forward to your thoughts.

Dave Lull said...

Your posting reminded me of:

What T. S. Eliot wrote 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. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne. The two great followers of Shakespeare, Webster and Tourneur, in their mature work do not borrow from him; he is too close to them to be of use to them in this way. Massinger, as Mr. Cruickshank shows, borrows from Shakespeare a good deal."

And a quotation from an interview of Christopher Logue:

"'Without plagiarism, there would be no literature. I'm a rewrite man,' he adds disarmingly. 'A complete rewrite man, like our Willy Shakespeare.'"

Anonymous said...

Other students occasionally stole from my essays at university. i generally didn't mind. It only got to me once - a bright but lazy student took my close readings of Emily Dickinson's poems and wrote a slightly different scaffolding around them. i think it vexed me because while he hadn't been willing to do the work (reading her poems over & over again, as i had - at least 50 hours of work for a non-assessed essay), he was nonetheless able to rewrite my essay so it sounded like his. If it had rang false - if i could feel he hadn't done more than glance at her poems - i wouldn't have minded; i was annoyed that he could pass it off as his own. It felt wrong, somehow.

He's now a schoolteacher, Head of English even, i believe.

Robert Levy said...

I wonder if this was prompted by the recent story about Maureen Dowd's 'inadvertent' plagiarism of a blogger's comment. (David, Maureen writes for the NY Times which is a news source you might not access). Her excuse was that the comment (almost word for word from the blog) was repeated by her friend and that was why she failed to attribute the source. (However she obviously lifted the quote from her friend with no worries.)

Is the 'crime' the repetition of the written word verbatim or should the more serious infraction be the copying of an original idea (whether or not it is expressed in the exact same language)? The idea is the more valuable expression, yet we often use the ideas from others without reference or attribution. Often we copy other's thoughts without consciously 'lifting' those ideas.

Although the web makes it easier to find and copy written works, it also makes it much easier to catch a violator in plagiarism.

D. G. Myers said...

What interested me about the Dowd case was that she used the same excuse that my professor used many years before. “That I ended up using the same quotations from Horace in similar ways, and even included phrases from our own translation,“ he wrote, “is partly the result of having a good memory for passages of poetry, and partly a result of carelessness.”

As Megan McArdle said when Dowd claimed something similar, “If she did [remember a passage verbatim, down to the commas], she's wasted as a columnist; she ought to have her own mentalist act.”

R/T said...

Plagiarism is, for lack of a better definition, evidence of a character flaw. People with a strong ethical core understand the differences between their own thoughts and words, and the words and thoughts of others, and those ethically-centered people would never think about presenting someone else words as their own. However, only the naive would believe that ethics is a cornerstone of contemporary culture; therefore, the incidents of plagiarism--and other symptoms of the ethically-challenged character--will continue on campuses and in newsrooms unabated unless professors, journalists, and readers hold people accountable for their lapses in ethics. Maureen Dowd is only a highly visible example; the casual observer (if that observer champions ethics) would be shocked at the pandemic of plagiarism in the last several decades. Do we blame the Internet? Do we blame the educational systems? Do we blame newsroom policies? Or--more immediately--shouldn't we seek to make students somehow more ethical and thus nurture a cultural shift away from intellectual dishonesty and expedience toward honor and integrity?

Anonymous said...

First, my apologies for being late to comment, since I was the guy who supplied the quote for your opening paragraph.

I do appreciate your argument and think it is very well put. And, given this explanation, I withdraw my comments on the previous post about your criticism verging on the defamatory since I now understand the sense in which your observation was made.

As a former editor and publisher, I do want to disagree as politely as possible with your desire that the term be made available (again?) as a "critical" term. When our reporters or columnists were found to have plagiarized, it meant the end of their employment (although, like you, I was criticized for not being ruthless enough -- half of the cases ended up in the Employee Assistance Program because the transgression was obviously the result of other factors in their life). For anyone who earns their living by writing, to be accused wrongly of a sin that could mean an end to their employment is more than just misplaced criticism.

Which to me means that the term should be reserved for clear-cut cases. As you indicated in your previous post, perhaps secondhand or derivative would have been better usage -- I agree with that (and also think it is very fair criticism of the author).

Maybe I am just being too sensitive. But having had to make the tough decision of telling a long-term, good writer that they were fired because they had plagiarized on a single occasion, I'm afraid I'll stay sensitive about use of the term.

Anonymous said...

One other very small point:

In your original post you refer to "the (Hiroshima) atomic blast" when in fact both the book and Trevor's review are clear that it was the bomb in Nagasaki. Certainly, the "shadow" images from Hiroshima are better known, which I suspect was the source of the oversight. So does the misstatement mean you are you guilty of appropriating an image or simply an oversight? I'm much more inclined to the latter, but it is a good example of why critical terms should be used carefully.

D. G. Myers said...

Shamsie’s book arrived today, and I saw immediately that I had made an error in referring to Hiroshima rather than Nagasaki. I won’t repeat the mistake in my review.