Academic Plagiarism

Edited version of comments posted on 10-11 January 2002 to a Metafilter thread about accusations of plagiarism directed at a prominent historian.


The main objections to plagiarism in the modern academic setting are that:

A closely-paraphrased sentence might be considered "misdemeanour" plagiarism, but whole paragraphs wouldn't. Listing a work in a bibliography when you've lifted whole passages from it without proper attribution attached to each isn't crediting the source, it's claiming the credit. And using someone else's original creative writing without proper compensation (whether money or a simple attribution) is theft of intellectual property. Whether or not one agrees with current legal notions of IP, it's the basis of many industries and careers, not least in research and academia. Academics are in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge, and they get paid accordingly. Which is why plagiarism is taken so seriously in universities: it's not just theft, it's fraud.

Listing a work in a bibliography when you've lifted passages from it is not due credit; nor, even, is a footnote or in-text reference when you haven't used quotation marks around quoted passages. It's misleading. No one can recognise every plagiarised sentence, and the inclusion of page references could lead readers to think that all you've done was rephrase an author's point in your own words.

What's the cut-off point for an idea? Where do we draw the line? At the book level? Chapter? Page? Paragraph? Sentence? Personally, I've written sentences with self-contained ideas as asides in longer passages, and I'd be pissed off to see them lifted without proper attribution.

In fact, I was pissed off when I found some of my words plagiarised in an essay at a cheat site. The author had included my book in his bibliography, sure, along with dozens of others. And that gave no indication at all that he had lifted whole chunks from it and used them without attribution throughout the last third of his essay. Not just any words, either: the concluding words; the final paragraphs of a 120,000 word book; the ones I had slaved over to get the phrasing just right, to leave the reader on a high note. I could still remember the day I wrote them.

And that's partly my point. Unless you're the author himself, you have no idea which of his words mean the most to him. Maybe his sentences don't seem that valuable to you, but you aren't the one who wrote them. When any of us publishes our words, we give other writers an implied but restricted right to borrow them—"fair use"—and in academia those restrictions include using quotation marks where applicable.

The question of intent is a vexed one: sure, few people would brazenly steal a whole book or article and pass it off as their own; but that doesn't make "unintentional" plagiarism any less objectionable. If a case of academic plagiarism really is "unintentional", it still means that the plagiarist wasn't following the rules of their trade. Saying "I didn't mean to run over that pedestrian" is no defence when you're driving 80 in a 40 zone. That's why students get rules about using quotation marks drummed into them: to help them avoid any question of plagiarism, intentional or unintentional.



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