January 19, 2010    Philosophy

In Defence of Plagiarism

Originality is the art of concealing your sources.
—Albert Einstein*1

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 you.

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).

There 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 complex “tissue 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 multi-sourced encyclopaedia.

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

But 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.

In 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.

The 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.

If such 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 transformation. Despite 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 single “theological” 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 from the innumerable centres of culture.” etc.

Each 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.