Sunday, March 31, 2013

The New Face of Plagiarism

screen shot from .jpg image of poster, embedded in Educational Technology and Mobile Learning
I recently ran across a link to an embedded Must Have Poster on Copyright Guidelines for Teachers. I put a posted copy of this poster up in the teacher's work room at least 8 years ago. I have traced the poster's creator to the Technology & Learning site, but have not been able to find the source of the .jpg that has been embedded at this link.  The poster, it turns out, is all over the net, often on academic sites. Somewhat odd, because internet distribution is not part of the granted use license (see above).  Moreover, the chart itself is woefully out of date; its distribution as a "must have" guide to copyright is not academically sound.  Filmstrips?  And what of freely posting projects that include sound and video downloaded from the Internet?  Bad, bad, bad.

Or else the rules have changed, are changing. I think we have to consider some rule changers. For the time, I am limiting discussion to text.

Jonah Lehrer resigned his postion as staff writer for The New Yorker over a question of cheating. It seems that he made up quotations that he attributed to Bob Dylan in his best-selling book Imagine.

Forbes is tough on Lehrer but does not condem him. His work, in their words, was "not outright plagiarism," merely the "misdemeanor" of "fabrication."  The Times is subtly tougher on Lehrer, ending the article with a quote from an interview that appears to demean Lehrer himself as a self-created, trending, shallow persona. Just the type of person who would fabricate.

But hold on. I always thought that fabrication was a creative activity.  Plenty of great creative writers have fabricated dialogue - entire scenarios - for living, breathing actual people, my fav being the Queen in Bennett's The Uncommon Reader, and often for dead people too, as in Farmer's wonderful Riverworld and many current hit films.

And then there is Jane Goodall, who stands guilty as accused of plagiarising whole passages of her new book from Wikipedia and other sources (read about it here and more damningly in The Daily Beast).  Goodall has not yet been drawn, quartered and otherwise humiliated, as was Doris Kearns Goodwin (read the first story here), but she may yet be. Of course Goodwin bounced back, after a rather short hiatus and a few interviews with Imus, to become the expert behind Lincoln. Maybe it's something about "good" names, but we seem to be a little light on plagiarism now-a-days.  It is easily explained away as merely a "problematic" "situation" - surely neither expert meant to suggest that the uncited text was passing off another's idea as her own. In fact, it was not idea-text at all - it was informational text.

Then there are the persistent, frequent instances of news and other informational texts appearing under multiple mastheads. Have you seen this yet today?  In the Lehrer case, many other articles state "he made it up" and then go on to recycling or remix the Forbes and Times articles.  Of course, the writers of these pieces aren't guilty of fabrication because the text they are using was not fabricated. It was simply paraphrased or, in some instance, copied whole hog, without attribution.  I guess that's not plagiarism either.

Nor is MoMA's poet laureate Kenneth Goldsmith plagiarizing when he practices what he terms "copyleft" and "manages" text produced by another into a different form. He states in an interview with Mark Allen for The AWL, "The new creativity is pointing, not making. Likewise, in the future, the best writers will be the best information managers" (Proudly Fraudulent).  

Last, what about "editing for hire"?  Parents and peers - even many teachers - heavily edit for free.  But new services like Essay Editor for iPhone take this to another level. A bare-bones text can, for a fee, be totally smoothed and reconstructed by anonymous "experts."  Who's to know?  Who's to stop it?

So it seems that there are some new rules students need to know about.

Rule #1:  Making up "sounds true" textual evidence is OK if the context into which the fabrication is placed is fictional narrative.  But don't make it up if you are framing your text as informational non-fiction.  Unless of course you are writing creative informational non-fiction, in which case you are free to create. When in doubt, make a film.

Rule #2: Recycling text from a source is OK if you are creating your own text in the same format (tweet to tweet, blog to blog, digital article to digital article, print book to print book, etc.), which is just moving words around, not really claiming they are your own original ideas. It is also OK if you are using a text to create a fictional text in a different genre (Wikipedia to fiction or poetry - Dos Passos did it too!).  But don't think you can get away with recycling text if you move it from one format to another (digital encyclopedia to print book or student essay, for example) in a scholarly, informational context.  When in doubt, sound clever, never serious.  Or make a Google Presentation.

Rule #3:  Paying for Text Editing/Total Revision is OK if you are lucky enough to find an expert editor who writes perfect English and who can decode your original ideas and embed your recycled information.  When in doubt, have your parents hire a tutor.

I'm sorry, Maggie Messitt, but your thorough board of resources to help students avoid plagiarism is a waste of time.  All we need to teach a student is that anyone else's text is really just information to be managed, or remanaged, unless the student's product is not fictional print text, in which case he can not under any circumstances fabricate; in any case he is free to purchase the remanaging of his sketchy text and submit it as his own work.  At the very worst, he will get a B or an eventual reprieve.

"Oh how the mighty have fallen" (unclear citation and derivation - I refuse to accept a rock band as a source).  In case you are still not clear on my position, I am not happy with the rampant plagiarism and lack of citation that I see everywhere. But is this the lesson of the Internet that we can not unteach?  Is it worth the effort for every student?

1 comment:

  1. Although, there is no specific definition for plagiarism, but it is true that the plagiarizers must be treated as thieves. You just need to have a duplicate checker to collect enough evidences against them and make them feel ashamed of doing unethical practices.