It’s complicated: plagiarism in our culture

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Dr. Crystal Sands, Director, Excelsior College Online Writing Lab (OWL).

Plagiarism has been in the news a lot lately—a lot. In the last few months, we have seen a rash of high-profile plagiarism incidents. Even writers of hit TV shows are not immune. Some of the accused admit they were wrong and apologize. Some, not so much.

When Buzzfeed’s political writer, Benny Johnson, was dismissed for plagiarism, he issued a public apology via Twitter, though many of his Twitter followers seemed less than impressed. Last fall, when Senator Rand Paul was accused of plagiarism, he admitted his mistake but then took a different tactic and turned it against the journalists who were calling him out for plagiarism, accusing them of being poor journalists.

Of course, this begs the question: Just how does one handle a plagiarism accusation gracefully, especially if that accusation is true?

This question is not a new one, and we do not have a lot of clear answers. Though we have seen much in the news about plagiarism in the last few months, this is not a new phenomenon. Writers, politicians, professionals, and students have been plagiarizing—either accidentally or on purpose—since long before the existence of copyright laws. It seems the difference is now we are more aware that plagiarism is wrong. Or are we? Do we even understand what plagiarism is?

Plagiarism is taking the words or ideas of others without giving credit, but what constitutes “taking” varies from situation to situation, discipline to discipline, culture to culture. For example, some cultures consider copying a form of flattery, which leads to some serious confusion when students from those cultures enter American culture and begin to write.

And, if taking the words of others without giving credit is not complicated enough, things get really tricky when we start to think about crediting the ideas of others. We live in a world where we are inundated with information. We read, maybe sometimes skim, and the ideas we glean from our reading can begin to influence our own ideas. Where do we draw the lines? When are our ideas our own?

As a writing teacher, I am probably more understanding of accidental plagiarism than most. It is my job to teach students where to draw the lines, not punish them for making honest mistakes. But, I do understand the seriousness of plagiarism—even accidental plagiarism.

A few years ago, a bright, young novelist, Kaavya Viswanathan, received a lot of attention for her first novel. It was published with much fanfare when she was a Sophomore at Harvard. With all of the attention, it wasn’t long before someone figured out she had borrowed much too heavily from two books in particular, books she had read many times as a teenager. She remained adamant that the plagiarism was accidental, that she had simply been heavily influenced by writers whom she admired. Nevertheless, the damage was done. Her book was pulled, and the contract for her second book was rescinded.

Another important incident from the music industry comes to mind. In the 1970s, former Beatle George Harrison was accused of plagiarizing the melody for his song “My Sweet Lord.” He was sued and lost the court case, though he protested that he had used an out-of-copyright hymn as the influence for the melody. Still, according to the judgment, his song, which was released in 1971 included a melody that was too similar to the 1963 song “He’s So Fine.” The results of the lawsuit were apparently devastating to Harrison; they also had a significant impact on the music industry. This was considered plagiarism, even though Harrison clearly did not intend to borrow from the 1963 song.

These examples serve as reminders that plagiarism can truly be accidental, but despite this, we can still face consequences for it. With this idea in mind, we would all do well, I think, to be considerate of our influences and sources. While what constitutes plagiarism can be confusing, especially for students, we need to pause and thoroughly question before we submit our work for review.

In my experience, the questioning and self-doubt is typically a positive sign. My students who worry about accidentally plagiarizing almost never do. My students who do not seem to give it much thought often do. We need to question.

Of course, accidental plagiarism is much different from the purposeful kind, isn’t it? Though the real-world consequences can be the same, purposeful plagiarism seems clearer, right?

When students lift words from a source, word for word, and do not provide any credit or copy and paste full passages from the web, leaving the blue text in tact, purposeful plagiarism comes to mind. However, even instances like these are not as clear as they seem. When students previously have submitted work in similar fashion without incurring consequences, it is easy to see how, they might make assumptions about these behaviors being “acceptable.”

Additionally, though we see instances of people being punished for plagiarism in the media, we also see instances of people “getting away with it.” Politicians such as Rand Paul, who I mentioned earlier, and Vice President Joe Biden have both seemingly recovered from incidences of plagiarism. Their careers do not seem to have been impacted. Does this send a message to students that plagiarism is not that big of a deal?

On top of this, there are many examples of “writing strategies” that exist in a variety of fields, which would clearly be considered plagiarism in an academic classroom. I have seen many PowerPoint presentations that include ideas from outside sources but provide no citations or references. I have been “guilty” of this myself. Strong documentation is typically not the norm in a professional PowerPoint presentation. As professionals, many of us do not cite our sources very well, especially in presentations.

These issues do make plagiarism complicated. What can we do to teach students in our culture that plagiarism is wrong, especially considering we know the issue is complex and we know students are exposed to confusing examples and clear double standards? There are no easy answers to these questions.

Perhaps the first step is to recognize whether or not something is considered plagiarism seems to be relevant to the particular situation. It is likely most of us should be setting better examples for colleagues, mentees, and students; however, perhaps the most important thing for us to do would be to start a conversation and ask questions to raise awareness. We should work to develop a culture that makes it okay for writers to discuss the nature of plagiarism.

Raising awareness and setting good examples will be explored in my next blog on this topic. But, for now, it is important to consider just how confusing the issue of plagiarism can be.

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