Originality is the art of concealing your sources.
I’m not at all convinced that plagiarism is an entirely bad or avoidable thing.
However, if you’re a student reading this in the hope of discovering a handy
excuse to steal someone else’s work I’m afraid I’m probably going to disappoint
Artists, musicians and writers etc have always copied each other. The list of rip-offs,
cribs, copies, samples, purloined fragments, pilfered references, and stolen ideas
is probably longer than history itself. People have always been influenced and
inspired by one another and they have always copied, emulated, mimicked and
borrowed. In turn they have helped disseminate ideas and provided materials,
tools and techniques which enable new ways of being, understanding and
communicating. Language itself is a battleground of plagiarism. Practically
every word we speak or write has been invented or evolved by generations before
us. We quite naturally build upon other people’s work and this human tendency
to recycle the energy and invention of others allows us to improve our
environment and, in turn, to provide new foundations upon which others may
continue to construct and invent. In this context, to believe that anything is truly
original is surely delusional.
By sharing of ideas,
animals, and most especially humans, pool the ability of their group. The
pinnacles of intelligence are exploited by the entire society. In human
culture, this has led to the emergence of a kind of communal intellect the
Collective Mind of man - that has pushed forward his biological progress at a
prodigious rate (Blakemore, C. (1977). Mechanics of, Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., p. 117).
are frequent occasions when we simply assimilate new information, ideas and
beliefs because they closely approximate or elaborate our own. Likewise, our
memories are so porous that we often adopt other peoples ideas without ever
taking note of our sources. In everyday experience we’re rarely, if ever,
tested with reference to our sources of information and opinion, and we’re
often blithely unaware and unconcerned whether some idea is of our own
invention or a notion subtly adopted from someone else. We read books, journals
and newspapers, watch TV and films, listen to the radio, surf the web and
engage in multitudes of conversation. In the process we unwittingly appropriate
and assimilate all kinds of information, ideas and attitudes with barely a
regard to the extent that these dilute or embellish who we are. We are each a
of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture”. You might
even ask to what extent a well-informed person is really anything other than a
Oliver Wendell Holmes mentions how someone at the
breakfast table sparkled greatly in conversation on certain topics. And seemed
quite ignorant on others. Presently it was noticed that all the subjects he
understood began with the letter A; then it was discovered that he was taking in
an encyclopaedia in weekly numbers and the mystery was explained.
—The London Globe, August 20, 1900 P.8
we’re not robots, we don’t simply absorb everything which is presented to us.
We select, analyse, contrast, speculate, synthesise, conceptualise and all too
frequently disregard or forget. This shifting pattern of absorption and
reconstruction is a fundamental aspect of conscious thought. Sophisticated
thought, far from being a tissue of quotations, is a multi- threaded tapestry
who’s origins are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to unravel. This process
of reconstruction, or more accurately - independent creative thinking - is what
conventional attitudes towards plagiarism seek to elevate. But without
absorption, appropriation and assimilation, what rudimentary, inarticulate,
underdeveloped and uninformed things our thoughts would be. And how absurd
would it be if we had to constantly reference every aspect of everything we
said, made or did? Fortunately there’s no requirement upon us to do so, but in
academia the situation is not quite so simple.
Students and staff who steal other people’s ideas and claim these as their own,
reap rewards which do not befit the meagre effort or achievement of these
unworthy magpies. Indeed there is something particularly parasitic about such
forms of plagiarism since they are not conducted in order to advance knowledge
and understanding but to deceive in the hope of self aggrandizement or the
avoidance of genuine effort and application. Parasites like thieves, are a
natural consequence of environmental circumstance and opportunity. Wherever
there is an advantage to be easily gained, someone or something will inevitably
exploit it and it is therefore necessary, in such circumstances, to create
boundaries or procedures to militate against abuse.
academia the standard solution to plagiarism is a “zero tolerance”
attitude where punishments are severe and the rules are narrowly defined and
explicitly stated. The requirement is that all references be clearly cited and
sources fully attributed according to “Vancouver” or “Harvard”
or whatever referencing system is in favour. Deviation from these rules can
have severe consequences and even minor mistakes often result in penalties.
Such rules are necessary to ensure that all new and original thoughts and ideas
are fairly encouraged and rewarded. However, as with all systems of regulation
and constraint, it simply forces abusers to be more cunning and the gatekeepers
to be more obsessive about correct procedure. James Atherton has discussed this
very problem on his blog “On the shibboleth
of Harvard referencing”. In particular he raises the tendency among
examiners to overemphasise correct referencing. Fortunately, professor Atherton
shrewdly recognises the real issue at hand:
…in the final analysis it does not
matter whether or not they [students] can attribute an idea to Bernstein, Bloom or Bruner, Pavlov, Piaget
or Poppleton, any more than it matters whether a gardener can say who made
his/her spade. It does matter what they do with it; whether they can use the
essence of that idea to inform their practice.
—Atherton, J. 2009 Blog: On the shibboleth of Harvard referencing, 3 April, accessed 25 October 2009.
There’s a software application often used by academic
institutions to detect plagiarism called Turnitin. You simply paste a section
of the suspect text into a box and Turnitin searches through a vast catalogue
of scholarly information, references and online essays etc in a manner very
similar to Google. As a method of detecting plagiarism it’s an extremely useful
tool and a powerful deterrent to would-be plagiarists. But this is in many ways
typical of the wrong-headed attitude of academia: regulating students rather
than supporting them. Far better than a plagiarism detector would be a
reference organiser/maker: a software application which takes an essay and
accurately attributes each quotation to its original source. I’ll wager that
this will happen in the not too distant future but, for the moment, the best
students have access to is Bibme.
issue which is all too often missed or subtly ignored in cases of plagiarism is
whether the material stolen is in any way substantive in relation to its new
context (ie: does the plagiarized material bring about an improvement which would
be otherwise unlikely?). If it does, then the accusation of deception is hard,
if not impossible, to counter. However if the plagiarism is trivial then, I
believe, we should be gracious enough to ignore it. This is why we can
easily forgive William Shakespeare or Robert Burns or Bob Dylan for the many
acts of plagiarism they perpetrated. For the most part, these acts were
insignificant in comparison with the vast quantity and/or quality of their
output. This demonstrates the often concealed ambiguity at the heart of
plagiarism. Generally speaking, plagiarism is condoned so long as its extent or
quality is not in any way substantive. Or, as my mum said to me when I was a
child “It’s okay to copy other people, so long as you do it better!”
But academia can’t deal with such ambiguities. If cheating is not seen to be
regulated and disciplined at every level then the floodgates would surely open
to all manner of abuse. And so the argument goes. Unfortunately, as with every
regulation instituted in order to deter the abuse of opportunity - whether it’s
checking-in at an airport, watching an avant-garde film, working with children,
taking photos at the swimming pool or writing an academic essay - we all have
to be careful that our intentions are clear and, if necessary, prove that our
age, qualifications or agenda are appropriate. Such are the insidious
consequences of social regulation.
academic constraints were extended to fine art education, this would certainly
make a mockery of the freedoms we expect of fine art practice. As it is,
academia could learn a lot from the ways that the art of the past century has
transformed our understanding of appropriation, recombination and contextual
this, art students - like all other students - must still follow the same rules
of attribution when it comes to the writing of essays and dissertations etc.
Even I, as a Masters student in the 1990s, had to carefully reference the
tissue of quotations I compiled as part of my master’s thesis on the subject of
appropriation. If I’d had more
confidence at the time, I’d have strung together the entire essay with as few
of my own words as possible. In 2007 Jonathan Lethem did exactly this (here), with supreme skill and authority, which just goes to show how powerful
plagiarism can be, when done with intelligence, comprehensive research and the
confidence to know that there’s a genuine and important point to be made.
Recently I had another idea on the on the subject of plagiarism, which is to
re-attribute fragments of Roland Barthes’ entire essay “The Death of the
Author” through HTML thus:
We know now that a
text is not a line
of words releasing a
meaning (the “message”
of the Author-God), but a multi-dimensional space in
which a variety of writings, none
of them original, blend
and clash. The
text is a tissue of quotations drawn
the innumerable centres
of culture.” etc.
hypertext link takes you to a webpage where the identical linked phrase can be
found, but in an entirely different context. It’s a simple idea, but a big job,
and I could do with a hand to complete it. So if you like the idea, feel free
to collaborate or, if you prefer, to steal!
*1:“Originality is the art of concealing your
sources.” This quote, which is often falsely attributed to
Einstein (as I have done above), was actually coined by Benjamin Franklin.
©2010 Jim Hamlyn, All Rights Reserved.