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The Perils and Temptations of Plagiarism
September 5, 2012 - 7:45pm

I remember that, as a child, I loved to copy in a notebook the best parts of the literature I was reading.  I would taste the words in my mouth as I was transferring them from the page of the book and jotting them on my little pad, thus enjoying them even more. I must admit that secretly, I wished it were I who authored those pretty phrases, I who had found those brilliant and unexpected pairings between adjectives and nouns. But even if I was just the scribe taking down the notes of the divine inspiration of others, the activity of repeating the path of their pen was pleasurable and, later on, inspirational.

In some non-Western traditions, to reproduce faithfully the words of canonical authors is considered not a crime, but an  homage. It is as if these great writers have succeeded in putting into words the essence of an idea. To try to change anything in their expressions, in the turn of their phrases, would be to insult their craftsmanship, to put into question their talent. The pupil can only hope to copy the words of the master, in the hope that they will serve as medium for inspiration.

I have noted this trend when grading the papers of those of my students coming from outside the Western world. More than once I was met in the pages of the exams by words that sounded very familiar, too familiar: my own words that the students carefully took down during the lectures and that now returned to me as the embodiment of the best, or at least most correct, of the answers to the exam questions. When I confronted them with the accusation of plagiarism, they did not understand. Was it not the purpose of the exam to answer the question correctly? They thought that those words, my words, carried the seal of legitimacy, sanctioned as they were by me, the teacher.

In order to explain that what they have done was wrong, I had to go back and clarify that the point of the exam was not just to answer the questions correctly, but to do so with their own words, in their own way, bringing up their own examples. Only this would be proof that they understood the lectures, the course literature and the theories presented therein and that they could independently apply the abstract notions introduced earlier in the course to specific situations that they themselves chose as appropriate.

Plagiarism is not a crime unless originality, individuality and authorship have the weight of legal and social norms. Our love of the “original” as in the primary/unique version of a work of creation is not necessarily shared by other cultures. In other parts of the world, the social norm says that the value of something is not diminished by its reproduction in millions of copies. On the contrary, it increases: the more copied, thus the more famous, and ultimately the better the product.

Ideas, like products, are likely to spread widely if they are deemed to be good. The key here is acknowledging the sources. Quoting and making explicit one’s sources is to admit their importance – if not more, at least for provoking a reaction. Not referencing is a mark of dishonesty, and implies that one doing so lacks the capacity to reformulate or critically assess previous works.

For the sake of the argument though, let us also admit that sometimes our greatest inspirational sources remain unknown even to ourselves.  Perhaps those notebooks of quotes that I put together as a child are still somewhere in the cellars of my literary memory and that they emerge from there unacknowledged. If all creativity is combinatorial, then the plagiarism of ideas (omitting the parenthood of an idea) is more of a crime of inspiration and a fault of the imagination.  To use an oft cited quip, “all ideas are second-hand”, but some of their combinations may be entirely novel.

Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

Additional references:


Harvard Guide to Using Sources: A Publication of the Harvard College Writing Program. What Constitutes Plagiarism?

Maria Popova (2011). “Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity”. Brain Pickings.



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