Saturday, July 21, 2007

Plagiarism redux

Some time ago, I wrote about the ever-increasing extension of the term "plagiarism" to cover more and more behaviour, at least in the academic world. I just came across another example of this. Victoria University advises its English Lit students what to do if they discover that somebody else has already written about an idea they've had:

Your approach will never be precisely the same as the writer who has so irritatingly come up with the same idea, so you can stress the differences and acknowledge the other writer appropriately in your citations. Failure to do so constitutes a form of plagiarism, even if you honestly arrived at your conclusions independently.

No longer is plagiarism the deliberate attempt to pass off another person's work as your own. Now, according to macademia ("May Contain Nuts"), plagiarism can be the failure to cite works which had no influence on you because you didn't learn about them until after you developed your ideas.

In my opinion, the academic rules against plagiarism are less about preventing fraud and more about creating an insular in-group with rules of behaviour that outsiders simply don't understand. To outsiders, fraud has to be fraudulent to be fraud, and failing to say "by the way, this other guy had a similar idea, but it's different from mine" might be impolite and even incautious (in case others discover that work and wrongly imagine you copied it), but it isn't fraud in and of itself. But to macademics, such a failure to mention an irrelevancy is itself fraud.

If your mind boggles, its supposed to. It is no surprise that it is liberal arts departments that are prone to "scope-creep" of plagiarism and the application of other arbitrary rules. Like the rituals and secret handshakes of Freemasons, such practices are there to separate those who have passed the initiation from those who are merely smart and educated.

1 comment:

A foreign University student said...

You gave me something to think about. Luckily I have never been told to try and change my ideas to differentiate them from those previously presented by someone else, but I have to admit it sometimes is frustrating to try and find references for one's original ideas simply because of a nagging feeling that someone else must have said it already. I have thought of it as simply trying gain some credibility to one's own conclusions - the importance of which has been stressed to me over the years at the university over and over again - but now I wonder if some of it might in reality be a form of fear of plagiarism. I will definitely have to give this some thought.

Not all the rules governing the academic world and academic writing are always well founded; I believe more and more in the importance of drawing attention to these sets of rules and questioning them.

I myself had a somewhat similar and extremely frustrating experience in a different field, in fact while attending a Creative Writing class one of my teachers was offering. My teacher, having recommended me an author that I, in fact, ended up writing my Master's thesis on, kept seeing details in my writing that he believed "too clearly" influenced by this author. In reality I was using and rewriting material I had written years ago, before I ever heard of the author in question. How could that possibly be "plagiarism"?