Professor Steve Fuller, an eminent sociologist at the university of Warwick recently published a provocative blog post on the ways in which academia deals with plagiarism, titled “Plagiarism: Observations on Academia’s Self-Induced Moral Panic”. In this article, I will discuss the main arguments he outlines and explain why I believe they are misguided.
The central argument of the piece is concerned with moving from what Fuller (2016) describes as a ‘moral’ view of plagiarism, to an ‘aesthetic’ view. I believe that plagiarism is a moral issue and believe that the “aesthetic view” of plagiarism is ineffective at maintaining academic standards. Fuller in the blog notes that we should take lessons from the art world when trying to deal with plagiarism issues and that a fixation on issues such as forgery and fraud merely reflects low academic self esteem. To quote him directly:
“It is too bad that academia does not adopt this relatively relaxed attitude to plagiarism and fraud[.]”
According to Fuller, having an institutional fixation on checking for plagiarism merely “draw[s] attention to just how much academics feel the need to protect their turf from unworthy interlopers.” Having an interest in maintaining rigorous academic standards, is somehow the same as prohibiting particular voices from being heard. The idea that is contentious here, is that the fraudulent contribution is somehow not unworthy. At the end of his blog, he states the following:
“I am asserting an unconditional right of someone who has been allowed into society’s epistemic sphere to range freely within it, as a ‘commons’, unless specifically stopped by a relevant authority for ‘poaching’ or ‘polluting’.”
A major point of contention is the notion between privately owned and publicly owned knowledge, what Professor Fuller refers to in his article as a ‘commons’ . Students already have the ‘unconditional right’ to enter into the epistemic space he describes. Fuller in saying these points wants to highlight the fact that all knowledge is free reign for the student. However, it is not within the student’s right to be cavalier with that knowledge and to treat it with disrespect and to ultimately present it as a product of their own, without reference. Forgery is not qualitatively the same thing as an original, even if it passes as a genuine piece of work. However according to Fuller, if they bypass detection, then it is as good as the original. Passing as genuine is somehow sufficient, even if the material is ultimately an uncredited patchwork. That is why programs like Turnitin are so important for detecting counterfeits.
Fuller suggests an alternative program, one which in essence would protect and guard those willing to submit forgeries. The program would alert students to when their material was in the ‘danger zone’, and offer alternatives in order to prevent work from being regarded as plagiarism.
Fuller will be aware that Turnitin is already used in this manner, often tutors encourage their students to submit ‘drafts’ in order for their original content score to be amended. However, Fuller is advancing something different here. His hypothetical program would offer clear suggestions to students on how they can cover up their misdemeanours. It is not the case that plagiarism should be discouraged, it is simply that we should hide that it even happens by playing elaborate games of “cat and mouse”. Fuller seems eager to dismantle the very academic standards that got him to a position of relative authority as a professor.
Plagiarism was openly advocated and celebrated by writers such as Guy Debord (1994)  and his situationist international colleagues, for precisely the same reasons that Professor Fuller wants plagiarism to be a “cat and mouse game” in the academy. The plagiariser was to reproduce material in an aesthetic fashion. It was a way of initiating ‘progress’, a way of ‘erasing false ideas’ with the ‘right ideas’. This was entirely abstract as is Fuller’s notion of an aesthetic approach to plagiarism. Regardless, Debord and his ilk were appropriating the artistic principles that Fuller describes so glowingly in his blogpost. The problem that this amounts to is comparing apples with oranges. Despite this, it is always convenient to justify stealing other people’s work.
In the Society of the Spectacle, Debord directly highlights the aesthetic approach to plagiarism:
“Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It embraces an author’s phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea.”
Professor Bauman was outed in 2014, when it became apparent that he had reproduced content directly from Wikipedia without citing it (Jump 2014). In doing so, he replicated many of the errors that were present in these publicly available articles. When a PhD student at the University of Cambridge highlighted these claims in depth, Bauman rebuffed these serious claims by suggesting that high quality scholarship did not require ‘obedience’ to ‘technical’ rules of referencing. It caused a controversy and rightly so. Many realised that there are different standards at different levels of the ivory tower. There is a sense that eminence leads to an insistence on different rules to be applied at different times. A PhD student could not wilfully disregard referencing content and especially could not defend to other academics that citing is merely being obedient to archaic rules that insist on maintaining academic integrity and standards. It cannot be argued that there is a level playing field when it comes to being lackadaisical with referencing and writing with integrity. Hence why academic articles stressing the need to be less anal about technical rules of referencing, are inevitably articles from people who have nothing to lose in such a change. They can hide behind their positions of authority.
It sends the wrong message to place forgery on the same level as scholarship. Forgery that “passes for an original” is not an original, regardless of the aesthetic tricks that the writer took. Forgery can be interesting in the way that a found poem can be interesting. I think this is what Fuller has in mind when he thinks about aesthetic plagiarism of academic texts. Autoethnographic writers like Stacy Holman Jones, Tony Adams and Carolyn Ellis (see Adams et al 2015) sometimes use a technique called text spinning where passages from academic writing are juxtaposed together in order to stimulate new ideas. Often the purpose of this exercise is to help the researcher’s own experiences come out and ‘spin’ with the theoretical canvas. The difference is apparent, the citations are clearly marked. The original contribution to knowledge is not fabricated. The process is often the starting point for the researcher, in beginning to think creatively and critically about a subject.
Mary Ruefle’s (2006) ‘found poetry’ is often about taking a pre-existing text such as a Victorian novel and eliminating words with white out until a coherent message is found in the novel, that is ‘found’, that is new. This is not however on the same level as a poem that was written without the aid of the Victorian novel as a canvas. Further, it is not copying exact passages, it is using the book as a impetus for stimulating original thought. Another suggestion made by Fuller is that the aesthetic plagiariser uses the ‘archive’ (the internet) as an extended memory store. To quote him directly:
“The key difference is that the forger treats ‘the archive’ (aka ‘the internet’ for today’s generation) as an extended memory store, not as something ontologically distinct from his or her own being.”
The internet is a resource and as a resource, it must be used ethically when appropriating content. It is patently absurd to make such a claim in order to defend what is an indefensible outcome. Students plagiarise using the internet because they understand the internet as an extended memory bank, so therefore it is fine? Fuller apparently holds charlatans to high praise as is demonstrated here:
“Thus, we fail to appreciate that the most devious forger of original work will have mastered the skills that we would have demanded of them”
The forger has not mastered anything, other than stealing other people’s work. The present quote gets at the heart of what is wrong with the aesthetic approach to stealing people’s ideas. As Fuller notes himself:
“The problem with detected plagiarism is more that it is detected than that it is plagiarised: It was not good enough to pass as original.”
Fuller presents an incredibly negative view of what it means to be a teacher in this passage. This is what happens when we apply the principles of postmodernism to integrity in the academy. Students who play elaborate games of trickery in reproducing others work, who might not even understand any of the words that are pasted together, are somehow on the same level as the student tying hard to understand and write coherent, thoughtful and powerful essays that come from their own study and their own understanding of concepts, theory and experience. Why should students even bother in such a toxic environment, if their friends could skilfully juxtapose a bunch of academic texts together and get a better grade?
Academia can be regarded as a mental bricolage, in the sense that we wrestle with ideas and attempt to establish a coherent picture of many different parts. It is like a puzzle and you want to get the right pieces to make your picture look right. Qualitative researchers are quick to say research is messy and it is. There is an argument to have that ideas are not original, that our interpretation of ideas are hardly novel. This however does not mean that all ideas are aesthetically plagiarised, or that written material is in essence copied. The process of the forgery and the progress of the genuine article have different antecedents that are important. Scholarship that takes years to complete, with research strategies that collect data that is meaningful and reflexive of a particular community for example, is qualitatively different from someone going on the internet and copy and pasting passages from that piece of work and then “aesthetically” copy and pasting it within passages of Jane Eyre and then claiming credit.
Fuller wants us to remove the very tools we have in place to try and reduce fraud in our institutions, by putting the onus of plagiarism detection entirely on stressed out, overworked and overburdened academic markers. We should be helping our academics with every tool possible to help detect forgeries. We do not read everything. We are not infallible.
Fuller in wanting to remove or undermine the tools we use to detect plagiarism also states that doing so would “leave the uncaught student to dwell productively in his or her guilt”. This makes about as much sense as deregulating the banks and expecting them to do the right thing every time. Why undermine tools that can assist this process?
It is easy to see why Fuller is making these sort of arguments. It is in the very heart and soul of sociological inquiry to stand up for the underdog, as Howard Becker (1967) famously pointed out. Fuller might see the plagiarising student as being someone who is victimised, or someone who does not fit into a prescriptivist academic climate. It is clear however that if we want to have an academic discipline that people take seriously, we need to defend integrity and make sure we are doing our best to combat corruption. Fuller in his aesthetic approach to plagiarism showcases a very negative view of intellectual labor and the intellectual process. Intellectual ideas are there for everyone to come and take, if they can get away with it. Fuller wants the average student to turn into Shia LaBeouf and it is in everyone’s interest that this does not happen.
Adams, T., Holman Jones, S. and Ellis, C. (2015). Autoethnography. Oxford University Press.
Becker, H. (1967). Whose Side Are We On?. Social Problems, 14(3), pp.239-247.
Debord, G. (1994). The society of the spectacle. New York: Zone Books.
Fuller, S. (2016). Plagiarism: Observations on Academia’s Self-Induced Moral Panic. [Blog] The Sociological Imagination. Available at: http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/18440 [Accessed 4 Feb. 2016].
Jump, P. (2014). Zygmunt Bauman rebuffs plagiarism accusation. Times Higher Education. [online] Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/zygmunt-bauman-rebuffs-plagiarism-accusation/2012405.article [Accessed 4 Feb. 2016].
Ruefle, M. (2006). A little white shadow. Seattle: Wave Books.
Michael Palkowski is a PhD student at Edinburgh Napier University. He is interested in sociological understandings of hospitality, public space and urban theory. He is also interested in the sociology of the body and has published a book with Palgrave, (co- authored with Dr Kathy Charles) looking at Feederism from a sociological and psychological perspective.