Plagiarism: Observations on Academia’s Self-Induced Moral Panic

Nowadays whenever students submit essays at my university, it goes through the computerized ‘Turnitin’ system that surveys the internet for textual overlap with previously published material, resulting in some statistical figure of degree of overlap. If the figure is beyond 20-30%, a tribunal is set up to adjudicate the matter, in which the student makes some sort of representation. In any case, all essays pass through this system before they are marked. Some of the offending essays would have been spotted by the instructor in the normal course of marking because the student has lifted quite obvious sources – and in combinations that jar in terms of prose style. So, the real issue is the stuff that the marker might not have normally picked up, perhaps because the sources are quite diverse, appropriated with some judgement, and executed in a way that papers over more glaring stylistic differences among the original texts. Turnitin catches this stuff too, and it is often advertised as the great virtue of the system.

My view on plagiarism and other forms of academic fraud has been consistent throughout my career. I think a fixation on such activities speaks poorly to academic self-esteem – and the more mechanized version that we experience these days only makes matters worse. In short, statistically speaking, a confident academic culture would prefer an examination regime that ends up with ‘false negatives’ than ‘false positives’ in matters of fraud.

The arts have had a much healthier attitude to plagiarism, forgery, etc. – namely, to treat it as a game of ‘cat and mouse’. If an experienced practitioner or connoisseur can’t spot the fraud, then the artist gets away with it – though there will always be opportunities for future critics and scholars to return to the ‘scene of the crime’, so to speak. Indeed, the greater public visibility and notoriety enjoyed by the artwork, something that every true artist desires, the more vulnerable it becomes to this treatment. (It is thus easy to see why the great art historian Ernst Gombrich was a fan of Karl Popper.) Indeed, the return visits to an artist’s sources have sometimes served to alter their reputations, as people come to realize that an apparent ‘original’ really got all his or her best ideas from people who had gone unnoticed at the time. But sometimes even this additional knowledge doesn’t seem to matter much. The artist’s reputation remains intact – if only because of the cleverness with which the artist papered over the cracks between the borrowings. Indeed, this is the ‘art’ of the artist. Harold Bloom crafted an interesting psychoanalytic account of artistic creativity on the back of this point when I was a student in the 1970s, under the rubric of ‘the anxiety of influence’.

It is too bad that academia does not adopt this relatively relaxed attitude to plagiarism and fraud, which would effectively leave the uncaught student to dwell productively in his or her guilt. In contrast, our current practices draw attention to just how much academics feel the need to protect their turf from unworthy interlopers. Yet, what is the source of this need? Perhaps academics feel that their insights are so hard won, so naturally scarce, that someone who simply steals them or makes them up whole cloth is doing an injustice to the sense of labour implied by genuine academic achievement. Artists don’t generally have this hang-up. Rightly or wrongly, they believe that they are full of ideas and the real challenge is to harness them together in some coherent fashion. Artists often know the source of their most productive ideas, but they don’t feel the need to assign credit. This is for two quite sensible reasons: (1) under a slight change of circumstances, they might have got those very same ideas from other heads, including their own; (2) the artwork that they create from those sources will speak for itself by doing something significant that the source works did not do. Once again, the intended publicity of the artwork ultimately puts both propositions to the test.

Meanwhile, back on Planet Academia, we continue to live in a world where ideas are scarce, not abundant, and their value is judged in terms of what made them rather than what we make of them. 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 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. But make no mistake: I am not trying to re-package a crisis of ego identity (‘boundary issues’) as some higher epistemic virtue – or even claim that we are already cyborgs (though there may be something to that). Rather, 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’. In short, the burden should be placed on academics to demonstrate epistemic trespass among those who they have already admitted as their equals. Moreover, these demonstrations would be cast more in aesthetic than moral terms. In that case, 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.

One way to shift the normative character of fraud from a moral to an aesthetic basis for would be for a software firm to develop a counter-Turnitin programme aimed at the student market. The programme would alert students to whenever their texts have entered into prohibited fraud territory – and then offer alternative formulations that might take them out of that zone. In effect, the onus of judgement would be put back on the academics, since they would receive the student submission without knowing whether it had undergone this plagiarism-cleansing process: A higher form of ‘cat and mouse’.

Categories: Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes, Sociological Craft

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12 replies »

  1. Steve,
    you write it would be good ‘to develop a counter-Turnitin programme aimed at the student market. The programme would alert students to whenever their texts have entered into prohibited fraud territory – and then offer alternative formulations that might take them out of that zone.’

    Many universities already offer students to test their draft essays in that way.

    Your analogy with art is interesting but the mode is different, it is homage, play, irony. It takes a connaisseur to realise the contexts and allusions. In academia we have the quote, and the creative assemblage of previous work which needs to be acknowledged. What you describe may be the disdain of academics for their colleagues who do not respect this convention. But what about students who lift entire essays from the web, without any creative input?

  2. Thanks for this! I didn’t know about the Counter-Turnitin programmes. Is there a website advertising them?

    My point is not to get rid of the plagiarism as an offence but to roll the offence into more general considerations of the quality of student essays — i.e. whether they are saying anything inspired. Even before Turnitin, competent teachers could spot or at least suspect more blatant instances of plagiarism (and the internet serves to test the suspicions). But if the teacher doesn’t flag the plagiarism, and the student passes the teacher’s other evaluative criteria, then the student should be allowed to pass overall: A teacher fooled is a student learned.

    Suppose you’re worried that this might encourage students to game the system. Of course, some students will think in terms of how to craft together sources from elsewhere into something they present as their own ‘original’ work. However, the skills involved here — especially if the teacher is very competent — will need to be pretty sophisticated, approximating those that the essay-writing exercise is designed to test for. The only thing missing from an excellent forgery is the acknowledgement of the source, But to whom is this fact so important, if the work is brilliant on its face? Well, it is important to academics who see knowledge as operating in a condition of scarcity and hence subject to strict property rules which need to be respected.

  3. Several universities allow students to upload draft essays to turnitin so they can check they are ‘safe’.

    I am surprised you said that 20-30% similarity triggers a disciplinary hearing. This number is normal in many good essays, indicating quoted material. It is up to the lecturer to check this before any steps are taken against a student.

    Yes, art and science have many things in common but there are crucial differences as well.

    I don’t agree with this statement of yours:

    ‘The only thing missing from an excellent forgery is the acknowledgement of the source, But to whom is this fact so important, if the work is brilliant on its face?’

    We have an obligation to teach students the rules of the game. Crafting a paper requires the acknowledgement of sources so claims made can be checked. And I guess we are not so much after brilliance but new ideas and evidence.

  4. I don’t know the similarity figure that triggers a tribunal, but as I said in the article, it is beyond 20-30% of overlap.

    In any case, artists are also taught the rules of their game, but the issue here is the spirit of enforcement. Artists are just as interested as academics in determining the sources of works. However, it is less in a spirit of criminality than of gamesmanship. After all, the ‘rules of the game’ don’t have a supernatural existence. They are made by and for humans, and it is humans who judge their efficacy. The fetishizing of plagiarism and fraud ends up alienating academics from their own normative order by turning them into protectors of other people’s intellectual property: From gamers to gamekeepers! Not a good look, I’m afraid.

  5. Steve, i have the impression that we are somehow talking past each other. Maybe one last try. There are two points: we teach the craft of proper writing (there is much more freedom in art in comparison), and we want recognition (not only enforcement of property rights). The craft aspect is not be neglected, it helps avoiding making unsubstantiated claims (as we often see in students’ essays, but also in colleagues work, and of course in our own).

  6. Yes, I always allow my students to have a ‘review & resubmit’ option in Turnitin. Often they can correct it themselves. Especially UGs where it’s just a case of naivety. Have you read Vardi’s work in this area?

  7. I disagree with this on several levels. The 20-30% originality threshold belies a total misunderstanding of both Turnitin and cut and paste plagiarism. To leave it unchallenged, like a forgotten ‘straw man’ argument, might denote a lack of clarity; it could show something worse.

    The analogys to Art doesn’t hold water. While I agree we should take a different lesson from the Internet – this generation’s extended phenotype as knowledge carvers, rather than crafters or hunter gatherers – and the need for assessment to change in light of technological advance, there still is value in declaring provenance.

    The sources of information matter even more now that anyone can publish anything. Plagiarism isn’t a ‘crime’ because of the copying, it’s the taking credit. The reason for citation isn’t (or shouldn’t be) “because that’s how we do it” or “because we (academics) say so”. It is to ascribe sources, because the source of knowledge is important in science, etc, where it isn’t (necessarily) in Art. Art is a transformative process. In Academia, this transformation requires both a foundation – to justify its significance and relevance – and context, because the product AND the process are important. If I say Drug A is safe, it matters if I’m an online seller of said drug, or the person who did the double blind ten year clinical trial. That is why referencing is important, not the taking/giving credit. The explicit explanation of the process of gathering or creation of knowledge requires the method or origin to be recognised.

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