Stolen Words

What I remember about that morning was that the black cloud was already overhead when I woke up. It followed me around. My wife wondered what all the sighing was about.

"Today I ruin this guy’s life," I told her. "His department told me he has office hours around noon. He’s going to pick up the phone, and when he does, I’m going to have to ask him questions that will be humiliating. It's going to ruin his life.” 

“You shouldn’t look at it that way,” she said. “He did it to himself.” 

True enough. I had a dossier of material showing that the professor in question had engaged in plagiarism -- quite a lot of it, actually, and in the very book that had gotten him tenure. 

One author he plagiarized from had assembled a document in what seems to be the classic format for such cases. The lefthand column contained paragraphs of her work. The one on the right was from his book, published several years later, copied more or less word for word, with the occasional minuscule tweak of phrase or punctuation -- but without so much as a faint gesture of acknowledgment in the text, the footnotes, or the bibliography. 

As I found through some digging, she was not the only author he had expropriated. (It is a safe generalization that plagiarists are always serial offenders.) With the other aggrieved parties, he had come to some kind of quiet agreement -- while the university he worked for remained none the wiser. That was about to change.

I would give him a chance to explain himself, of course. But really there was not much he could say. Plagiarism is one offense where simply presenting the evidence often amounts to conviction.

To be honest, researching the story had involved a certain amount of aggressive glee on my part. There is a special pleasure that comes from establishing an airtight case. (Besides, the superego is a bit of a sadist.) But now, with the prospect of actually talking to the guy looming, it was surprising to feel contempt give way to pity. His luck had run out. In a couple of days, he would be notorious. It felt as if I were serving as his judge, jury, and executioner – not to mention the court stenographer. Oddly enough, I felt guilty.

Besides, the psychology of the serial plagiarist is so puzzling as to be a fairly absorbing mystery. So I’d discovered a few years earlier from Norman Fruman’s book Coleridge, the Damaged Archangel (Brazillier, 1971).

The poet had not simply borrowed a thought or image here and there. Some of the occasional borrowings in his verse might be discounted as, well, poetic license. After all this time, the fact that Coleridge extracted large parts of his theory of imagination from the work of German philosophers seems more interesting than it is shocking. (The notion of intertextuality can be used to excuse a variety of sins.)

But when you learn that most of Coleridge’s prose writings were also copied from other writers -- often from Grub Street hacks of his day -- then it seems that something very odd is going on. And the more you love his poetry, the harder it is to know what to think of his kleptomania. Should you be indignant? Or just perplexed?

As for the 21st century professor .... he was no tortured Romantic genius. He did sound mortified when I called, and deeply regretful. He also managed to blame his graduate student assistant, who, he asserted, was somehow the one really at fault. (Just as the two-column format is the standard way of documenting plagiarism, so, it seems, the grad-student assistant is the standard scapegoat, at least with light-fingered academics.)

That half-hearted acceptance of responsibility on his part did the trick. My ambivalence vanished. A week or so later, the university announced that he had resigned from his position. I felt neither pride nor guilt -- only the mild curiosity appropriate to something that's now really none of your business.

But the topic of plagiarism itself keeps returning. One professor after another gets caught in the act. The journalists and popular writers are just as prolific with other people's words. And as for the topic of student plagiarism, forget it -- who has time to keep up?

It was not that surprising, last fall, to come across the call for papers  for a new scholarly journal called Plagiary: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. I made a mental note to check its Web site again -- and see that it began publishing this month.

One study is already available at the site: an analysis of how the federal Office of Research Integrity handled 19 cases of plagiarism involving research supported by the U.S. Public Health Service. Another paper, scheduled for publication shortly, will review media coverage of the Google Library Project. Several other articles are now working their way through peer review, according to the journal’s founder, John P. Lesko, an assistant professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University, and will be published throughout the year in open-source form. There will also be an annual print edition of Plagiary. The entire project has the support of the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan.

In a telephone interview, Lesko told me that research into plagiarism is central to his own scholarship. His dissertation, titled “The Dynamics of Derivative Writing,” was accepted by the University of Edinburgh in 2000 -- extracts from which appear at his Web site Famous Plagiarists, which he says now gets between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors per month. 

While the journal Plagiary has a link to Famous Plagiarists, and vice versa, Lesko insists that they are separate entities -- the former scholarly and professional, the latter his personal project. And that distinction is a good thing, too. Famous Plagiarists tends to hit a note of stridency such that, when Lesko quotes Camille Paglia denouncing the poststructuralists as “cunning hypocrites whose tortured syntax and encrustations of jargon concealed the moral culpability of their and their parents' generations in Nazi France,” she seems almost calm and even-tempered by contrast.

“It seems that both Foucault and Barthes' contempt for the Author was expressed in some rather plagiaristic utterances,” he writes, “a parroting of the Nietschean ‘God is dead’ assertion.” That might strike some people as confusing allusion with theft. But Lesko is vehement about how the theorists have served as enablers for the plagiarists, as well as the receivers of hot cargo.

“After all,” he writes, “a plagiarist -- so often with the help of collaborators and sympathizers -- steals the very livelihood of a text’s real author, thus relegating that author to obscurity for as long as the plagiarist’s name usurps a text, rather than the author being recognized as the text's originator. Plagiarism of an author condemns that author to death as a text’s rightfully acknowledged creator...”  (The claim that Barthes and Foucault were involved in diminishing the reputation of Nietzsche has not, I believe, ever been made before.)

To a degree, his frustration is understandable. In some quarters, it is common to recite – as though it were an established truth, rather than an extrapolation from one of Foucault’s essays – the idea that plagiarism is a “historically constructed” category of fairly recent vintage: something that came into being around the 18th century, when a capitalistically organized publishing industry found it necessary to foster the concept of literary property.

A very interesting argument to be sure -- though not one that holds up under much scrutiny.  

The term “plagiarism” in its current sense is about two thousand years old. It was coined by the Roman poet Martial, who complained that a rival was biting his dope rhymes. (I translate freely.) Until he applied the word in that context, plagiarius had meant someone who kidnapped slaves. Clearly some notion of literary property was already implicit in Martial’s figure of speech, which dates to the first century A.D.

At around the same time, Jewish scholars were putting together the text of that gigantic colloquium known as the Talmud, which contains a passage exhorting readers to be scrupulous about attributing their sources. (And in keeping with that principle, let me acknowledge pilfering from the erudition of Stuart P. Green, a professor of law at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, whose fascinating paper "Plagiarism, Norms, and the Limits of Theft Law: Some Observations on the Use of Criminal Sanctions in Enforcing Intellectual Property Rights" appeared in the Hastings Law Review in 2002.)

In other words, notions of plagiarism and of authorial integrity are very much older than, say, the Romantic cult of the absolute originality of the creative genius. (You know -- that idea Coleridge ripped off from Kant.)

At the same time, scholarship on plagiarism should probably consist of something more than making strong cases against perpetrators of intellectual thievery. That has its place, of course. But how do you understand it when artists and writers make plagiarism a deliberate and unambiguous policy? I’m thinking of Kathy Acker’s novels, for example. Or the essayist and movie maker Guy Debord’s proclamation in the 1960s: “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress demands it.” (Which he, in turn, had copied from the avant-garde writer Lautreamont, who had died almost a century earlier.)

Why, given the potential for humiliation, do plagiarists run the risk? Are people doing it more, now?  Or is it, rather, now just a matter of more people getting caught?

Given Lesko’s evident passion on the topic of plagiarism as a moral transgression – embodied most strikingly, perhaps, in his color-coded War on Plagiarism Threat Level Analysis – I had to wonder if the doors of Plagiary would be open to scholars not sharing his perspective.

Was it worth the while of, say, a Foucauldian to offer him a paper? 

“It may be that I’m a bit more conservative than some scholars,” he conceded. But he points out that manuscripts submitted to Plagiary undergo a double-blind review process. They are examined by three reviewers – most of them, but not all, from the journal’s editorial board. 

There is no ideological or theoretical litmus test, and he’s actively seeking contributions from people you might not expect. “I’m willing to consider articles from plagiarists,” he said. 

That’s certainly throwing the door wide open. You would probably want to vet their work pretty carefully, though. 

Scott McLemee
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The Faculty Role in Stopping Cheating

Like parents reluctant to discuss sex with their pre-teen daughters, faculty members have always seized with relief on any way to escape the need to address the sensitive issue of cheating in college. But concerns over the incidence of academic dishonesty have been growing in recent years and it is surely past time to bring this subject out into the light of day.

For many professors, of course, the environment in which they work has changed -- and not, in this respect, for the better. There was a time when cheating involved glancing at a neighbor’s test answers or laboriously copying passages out of books in the library by hand. But with the advent of cell phones, text messaging, and the Internet, cheating in college has become more widespread and harder to detect. Students can now purchase online papers on topics from astronomy to zoology, locate research on even the most arcane topic almost instantaneously and submit text in English to be automatically translated into any of a hundred foreign languages.

This, then, is the background against which first-year students have been arriving at colleges and universities across the country over the last month. And on those same campuses, faculty members and administrators have been wrestling with the challenge of introducing them to their new and unfamiliar academic environments. Prominent among the topics they have been addressing, albeit unwillingly, is “academic integrity” -- the kinder, gentler obverse of … well … cheating.

Some of this year’s freshmen will have taken online tutorials, others will have received pocket-size how-to booklets on avoiding plagiarism in their papers, and still others will have attended orientation meetings where faculty members alerted them to their institutions’ honor codes, or policy statements, or the online tools used to detect plagiarism.

Some of my colleagues, to be sure, adopt the ostrich defense, refusing to “waste valuable class time” talking about academic honesty. Cheating is cheating, they contend; students should recognize it for what it is and “just say no.” But this approach fails to take into account the world of college study as contemporary students see it. A recent national study, after all, showed that two of every three college students fail to recognize that downloading copyrighted music and video constitutes stealing -- a judgment call far less complex than those they will encounter when they tackle lengthy term papers drawing on multiple scholarly sources.

Instead, we should openly admit to our students that even experienced professors frequently confront moments of indecision in their own work that lead them to consult their colleagues or their consciences. Like most truly worthwhile activities, studying and writing with integrity demands sophisticated ethical reflection not the blind application of a set of rules to clearly defined circumstances.

We should also frankly acknowledge that instructors at the college level differ markedly in their expectations of students, all too often without making those expectations clear in their course syllabi. Some encourage group work on projects; others prohibit it. Even those who encourage group work may or may not take time to define what individual contributions are acceptable. Some expect students to cite all their sources in a paper, including even the textbook assigned for the course, while others see this as unnecessary. We appropriately respect the rights of individual instructors to set such parameters in ways that best support their goals, but students deserve to understand exactly where the lines will be drawn in each class, just as they need to know the due dates for papers and the rules regarding the use of calculators in tests and quizzes. In clarifying their guidelines, professors simply help students to develop an important life-skill: the ability to analyze and respond to the many and varying demands that will be placed on them in their future careers and in their personal lives as adults.

Above all, we cannot ignore the fact that today’s students are the targets of highly sophisticated marketing that explicitly undermines the messages that conscientious faculty members are trying to inculcate. The Internet offers an unlimited array of information free for the taking and all but encourages students to take shortcuts. The sober-seeming Web site of an organization that claims to “provide a top notch writing service for all … clients across the world” also asserts that “[all] our work is guaranteed not to be plagiarized and we give a money back guarantee for that.” This hardly helps a student unclear on the concept to see that the very act of ordering up a “model essay” from this outfit itself violates the canons of academic honesty, virtually whatever one’s definition of that contested term.

So what strategies can a diligent faculty member adopt to combat student misconduct? First, offer students a forthright, unembarrassed explanation of what constitutes the work you expect in a course or an assignment and of what help they may and may not seek from others in completing it. Second, take reasonable care to design assignments and examinations in such a way that cheating on them will be difficult and could only result from a conscious effort on the part of a student to deceive. In a literature course, do not invite students to select their own texts to compare and contrast; pick works that the paper-mills are unlikely to have anticipated. When assigning a term paper, require at least one draft and insist that the final text demonstrate that its author has responded to your suggestions for improvement. And make it clear that you will be expecting all students to check their handheld devices at the door on each and every exam day. Third, always offer a sympathetic ear to students with honest questions. Denying that this is a key element of the responsibility we owe our students, by contrast, is poor pedagogy and will only buy additional trouble -- for us or for our unfortunate colleagues -- as our students move towards graduation four years hence.

Timothy R. Austin
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Timothy R. Austin is vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college at the College of the Holy Cross.

Faculty Theft

Teaching at a small college like mine demands that one be a generalist. The downside involves not only the constant prepping, but also the reality that I will probably never be a specialist again (I can lecture -- for 5 to 10 minutes -- on virtually any literary or fine arts topic; my grad school dreams of producing an elegant full-length critical text on poetry are long gone). There is an upside as well, however, and that consists primarily of the interesting juxtapositions of and connections among the works on my various syllabi.

Thus, just as the final decision regarding Glenn Poshard, president of Southern Illinois University (yes, he plagiarized; no, he won’t be fired) was setting off yet another round of blogging, I found myself starting the day with The Great Gatsby and ending with Oedipus Rex, thus neatly pairing a novel in which "Everybody lies" (the line is Gregory House’s, although it might easily be Nick Carraway’s) and a play in which the tragic hero -- driving the plot toward his own destruction -- argues that “the truth must be made known.”

About a year or so ago, I put out a call at an online forum for tales about faculty plagiarists. What was driving my interest was the sneaking suspicion that in the case of plagiarism, colleges often have a double standard: one standard for students and another for faculty and administrators. If it is sometimes amusing (note that I said sometimes -- more often it is disheartening and aggravating) to listen to the excuses that students will argue in defense of their cheating ways, it is nothing less than appalling to hear a tenured administrator plead that he wasn’t adequately schooled in the meaning of plagiarism or to listen to a faculty member justify her appropriation of another’s work under the headings of forgetfulness, ignorance, or the impossibility of original thought in the 21st century. If one has already committed one egregious act -- that of stealing -- is it surprising that he or she would attempt to lie his or her way out of it? And most appalling of all is how many instances of faculty plagiarism are simply left alone by administrators.

My correspondents in the forum answered my query with examples of faculty plagiarists great and small: some offenders had been outed and severely penalized; still other perpetrators of the crime had triumphed with no punishment at all. A number of forum participants advised against becoming involved in bringing any sorts of charges, and, based on the sagas of revenge cited by several individuals, this began to seem like very good advice.

Formal grievances filed against them, bad teaching schedules, being shrouded by other departmental members, seeing no recourse but to leave: These are some of the repercussions not for faculty members who cheat, but for those who uncover the evidence. Having once or twice stolen the good work of others, some plagiarists’ line of defense is to go after the good names of those who cried "foul."

Plagiarism, I was beginning to understand, was only part of the story. This fact was reinforced for me by one of the final postings (readers having already begun to move on to other forums and forms of discontent). Why not, my anonymous source proposed, broaden the topic to faculty theft? Why not indeed? As the writer -- a veteran of academe, who gave me permission to quote his response -- pointed out:

“Plagiarism” is a somewhat narrowly-understood term -- i.e. the verbatim incorporation of another’s words without acknowledgment -- and the more general defining principle, theft, sometimes gets lost in the parsing. I would argue that other academic thefts -- in particular the hijackings of ideas, proposals, (co-)credit, publishing opportunities, support funds, courses, students, lab space -- are equally -- if not more pernicious.

The writer was indeed correct: plagiarism is just one category of the theft that’s practiced within the halls of academe. I’ve also observed that individuals rarely commit one isolated act of thievery -- there’s usually a pattern. And to my generous correspondent’s catalog, I would add the losses of time, concentration, reputation, joy, and friendships with colleagues.

What explains the lists above? Is it simply, as in the maxim attributed to Henry Kissinger, that university politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small? Do academic departments breed this behavior, or is there something in the makeup of the offender that led him or her to choose -- and abuse -- this line of professional work? In an outside, follow-up e-mail, my anonymous correspondent continued: "I think you will find that the most egregious serial offenders in academe fall under the DSM-IV category of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.... The essence of the disorder is an inability to distinguish between substance and grandiose facade."

If that’s the case, then a proposal regarding the faculty self-evaluation form at my college would be of even less use that it originally appeared to be. Several years ago, a provost and subcommittee of the curricular/academic policy committee suggested that we add a question involving a statement of ethics: Faculty members would be asked to describe and assess in detail their ethical performance. The introduction of this question provoked a lively debate. The conundrum it posed was similar to that of the sink-or-swim test for witchcraft. If a faculty member composed a lengthy screed on his/her ethical behavior, wasn’t he/she protesting too much? If, on the other hand, a faculty member refused to answer the question, was that an indication that he/she was in fact guilty of unethical behavior? Wasn’t the question an insult to anyone striving to live a moral, ethical life? And finally, what would a serial offender do with this opportunity? How likely was it that a faculty member who had misbehaved would seek atonement on the front page of the yearly self-evaluation?

As for what constituted unethical behavior, our discussion never reached the heights or depths of plagiarism. The one example that I can recall went something like this: If you bring cookies for your students on the day that they fill out the course evaluations, is that ethical? It’s certainly food for thought -- and we reflected on that dilemma for a bit, while gazing at the plates of cookies that are always provided for faculty meetings. (We were, in fact, ahead of our time, at least on this issue -- see "Sweetening the Deal" and the accompanying commentary on Inside Higher Ed.)

The question on ethics was cut from the faculty evaluation forms -- not for any philosophical reason but because the subcommittee had neglected to follow the procedure for such revisions that is mandated by the faculty handbook. When the topic surfaced several months later, there was general agreement that just as the students must follow an honor code, so too do faculty members everywhere have an implicit code. We all know, however, that there is no honor among thieves.

Carolyn Foster Segal
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Carolyn Foster Segal is associate professor of English at Cedar Crest College.

Why Doesn't Plagiarism Matter?

As David Horowitz would be quick to remind you, academics tend to skew to the left in their political outlook relative to the general population. I am no exception. Like so many of my colleagues, I have followed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign with interest and excitement. South Carolina had an early primary this year, and nearly all of the major candidates came to speak at Clemson University, where I teach. Obama spoke outdoors, on a chilly and gray afternoon, but the energy he shared with that crowd of teachers, staff, and students made the event the most compelling political spectacle I’ve witnessed personally. The sight of an integrated crowd cheering a black presidential candidate not far from a campus building named in honor of Benjamin Tillman, an ardent segregationist, made politics seem exciting again.

Remembering this sense of exhilaration I sensed in seeing a new field of political possibilities makes the sense of betrayal I feel today even more powerful. By choosing Joe Biden as his running mate, Barack Obama has insulted academics -- students and teachers alike -- a constituency that was significant in bringing him the nomination of his party. Especially in a year that has seen two prominent political careers hamstrung by sex scandals, and in an era where choosing vice presidential candidates seems to be foremost an exercise in avoiding skeletons in the closet, it’s surprising that Biden’s record of plagiarism did not disqualify him from Obama’s consideration.

Joe Biden, you will remember, ran for president in 1988. He delivered a speech that presented the thoughts of British Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock is if they were his own, and was slow to explain or apologize for this transgression. The ensuing scrutiny of Biden’s record revealed that he had also plagiarized in law school, failing a course for doing so. Shortly after these revelations, he dropped out of the race.

The entire affair was a shabby and unfortunate business. Operatives from the competing Dukakis campaign secretly videotaped the offending speech, then leaked it to the press. When Dukakis found out, he fired his campaign manager, John Sasso, and replaced him with Susan Estrich, who turned out to be a much better legal scholar than campaign manager.

To a degree, appropriating Kinnock for a stump speech is an understandable offense. There is not the presumption of original and unique authorship in the words that come out of a politician’s mouth. Just ask Peggy Noonan. However, the phrasing of Biden’s speech, prefaced Kinnock’s sentiments with language that indicated that these were his thoughts. This incident suggests the same kind of troubling indifference to the truth that has been a hallmark of the current administration, but on its own, perhaps not worthy of ending a political career.

The incident in law school is more concerning, at least from the perspective of any educator. The kind of wholesale plagiarism Biden evidently committed, copying chunks of a law review article into a paper with his name on it, suggests an inclination toward the kind of malfeasance present in the Kinnock incident. In every class I teach, I spend time talking about citation, and why it is so important for scholarship. As part of this conversation, I emphasize that acknowledging sources is a condition of membership in the community of scholars: if scholars do not acknowledge sources, they do not belong in this community. By way of illustration, I have sometimes shared the Emory University report on the conduct of former history professor Michael Bellesiles, who undermined a provocative and compelling argument about gun ownership in early America with gross violations of scholarly norms for citation. The report demonstrated serious concerns about his scholarshop and led to his resignation. If Bellesiles had chosen a less contentious subject, he would not have had legions of NRA supporters going through his footnotes, and he might well still hold his tenured position at a prestigious university. However, he presented his research in sloppy and dishonest fashion, and he lost his job.

The point of sharing this report is to establish that citation is not a question of memorizing MLA, APA, or Chicago styles -- whimsical shibboleths involving italics and parentheses -- but that citation is the foundation of honest scholarship. In the sciences, an experiment’s repeatability is the benchmark of its truth; in the social sciences and the humanities, citations perform the same function by allowing a reader to recreate the steps through which a writer established his or her argument. If a professor violates these norms, as Bellesiles did, he can lose his job; if students violate the same norms, they can face expulsion (though it’s much harder to get kicked out of most universities for academic dishonesty than it perhaps should be).

Within the academy, plagiarism is a grievous offense, and one most scholars would agree ought to have consequences. I was sympathetic to Bellesiles’ argument, and actually sent him an e-mail message of support, before the extent of his malfeasance was evident. But I teach the Bellesiles case because it establishes that there are consequences that follow from academic dishonesty. Bellesiles cheated, and he lost his job because of it, and in spite of an argument that continues to make sense.

Joe Biden is not a historian. Joe Biden has several qualities that do make him a good pick for Obama’s VP. On Election Day, I will hold my nose and vote for Obama/Biden. I continue to believe Obama offers the United Sates the best chance of escaping from the disaster of the last eight years. A survey of third party candidates reveals that after the vainglorious spoilsport Ralph Nader, the choices get even more marginal at a quick pace. Whoever is in office in January 2009 will face enormous challenges over the next four years, and I don’t think I can afford to waste my vote on a gesture. But I wish Obama could have located someone with foreign policy experience who did not have Biden’s track record of intellectual dishonesty, because I’d hoped to be motivated to do more this fall than show up and pull a lever for Obama. After this VP choice, however, I feel that’s the most Obama can expect from a constituency he has indicated he takes for granted.

Biden’s dishonesty matters to me in two ways. It suggests something of Biden’s character, indeed, in a realm more relevant to doing his job than was John Edwards’s philandering to his. The other reason is selfish. Now that Barack Obama has deemed a plagiarist worthy of the vice-presidency, it becomes more difficult for me to make the case in the classroom that plagiarism matters. More broadly speaking, Obama’s choice has made it harder for me, and for my colleagues across the United States, to defend the principles that form the foundation of scholarship.


Jonathan Beecher Field
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Jonathan Beecher Field is an assistant professor of English at Clemson University.

Dear Plagiarist

Dear Student,

When you got your paper back with a grade of F for plagiarism, you reacted in predictable fashion -- with indignant denial of any wrongdoing. You claimed “you cited everything” and denied that you had committed intentional plagiarism, or ever would.

This response is all too familiar to an experienced professor. Only once in my three decades of teaching has a student I caught plagiarizing owned up to it right away. And in that case, I believe (perhaps cynically) that she (a graduate student) thought a forthright confession might lead me to lighten the penalty. It didn’t; I failed her for the course and wrote her up. Indeed, I found out later that she had been caught plagiarizing by a colleague the previous term and let off lightly. I suspect that, because too many professors (many of them adjuncts fearful of student backlash) overlook or are unwilling to pursue plagiarism -- the process can be labor intensive, and it is always unpleasant -- cheating has become a way of life for many students, and they are genuinely surprised at being held responsible for it. So I don’t doubt that your shock is real.

When I declined to believe your initial denial, you reiterated it less strongly (“OK, I used SparkNotes, but I reworded everything”) and appealed to me for leniency on various grounds: first, that you didn’t know that paraphrase required documentation; second, that you had in fact read the book you were supposed to be analyzing (Susannah Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted); and, third, that the low term grade resulting from your F on the paper would cost you your scholarship.

With regard to your first claim, I have to admit that your paraphrase was very thorough, so much so that, to which you were required to submit your paper for screening, did not lead me to SparkNotes. There were other clues, however: the potted nature of your off-topic observations and, more obviously, your paper’s entire lack of specific page references to your primary source. Also, earlier, less skillful plagiarists had alerted me to the SparkNotes on Girl, Interrupted, so I knew where to look.

Your second claim is also familiar; student plagiarists often claim that they thought documentation is only necessary for quotation. For all I know, this excuse may have worked for them before. But any adequate discussion of plagiarism will correct that misimpression, as I do in course documents you should have read. As a college student, you should know that the key to responsible use of secondary sources is to cite them openly from the get-go and to indicate clearly the boundary between your words, insights, and ideas, and those of your source. But you relied almost entirely on SparkNotes for your observations on Girl, Interrupted.

As for your third ground, you must understand that I cannot take your financial circumstances into account here. In any case, can you see how ironic it is to plead, in effect, that you had to cheat to keep your scholarship?

This brings me to what is, from the professorial point of view, the heart of the matter. Your use of the online “study guide” SparkNotes is a problem not only because it was unacknowledged but also because it entirely short-circuited your thinking process. Such guides very rarely enable students to carry out independent analysis of primary sources; rather, they tend to inhibit or completely block it because they trade in canned, bland summaries and commentary. When they are sound (which isn’t always the case) they may be helpful for quick review of material a student has actually read (as a student I occasionally used them that way myself), but such general-purpose commentary is no substitute for -- or stimulus to -- the kind of analysis and argument that are characteristic of true college writing.

For that, you need to pay close attention to the prompt provided by the assignment. As I say in my handout “Tips on Writing an Academic Essay,” well designed assignments in humanities courses often ask students to think through a general issue in terms of a particular instance of it; ideally, the limited scope of the particular case enables students to address responsibly what would otherwise be an unmanageably broad question.

In this case, you were asked to “discuss Kaysen’s critique of the medical paradigm in her memoir in light of readings about the ongoing revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that suggest that our conception of mental illness is not entirely a function of objective biomedical knowledge but also inevitably conditioned by social, cultural, and moral values.”

You had been prepared for this paper by a sequence of selected reading assignments (for which study questions were provided), directed class discussion, and finally a workshop that walked you through the assignment. Once you consulted SparkNotes, however, you had difficulty focusing on the topic. SparkNotes did not help you analyze the text; it came between you and the text. As a result, you barely discussed the issues involved in the revision of the DSM, and you used the phrase “medical paradigm” exactly once in your entire essay -- in your tacked-on introduction. This flies in the face of my advice that the way to keep your essay on track is to reuse key terms in your topic sentences throughout.

The reason that plagiarism like yours makes professors so sad – and, yes, sometimes mad -- is that it entirely defeats our attempts to educate you. We work hard to put you in a position to reach understandings that you would not otherwise be able to attain. (This is what makes a real course a course.) Cannibalizing a source like SparkNotes is not “extra research” for which you should be lauded (as you claim); on the contrary, it’s a substitute for (and the very antithesis of) the intellectual work that you were asked to do, and which your professors see as being at the heart of a liberal arts education. The opposite of academic honesty is not actually academic dishonesty; it’s dishonesty that is decidedly unacademic. To commit it is to suggest that you don’t understand, or don’t value, the kind of education for which you (or your parents) are paying so much. The problem is not so much rule breaking as point missing.

Disappointedly yours,

Professor Couser

G. Thomas Couser
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G. Thomas Couser is founding director of disability studies and a professor of English at Hofstra University.

A Study of Self-Plagiarism

Doing a review of the literature for an article in my area of specialization in education. I came across two recent journal articles that were surprisingly similar at their core. One was co-written by Professors Alpha and Beta; the other by Professors Gamma and Beta.

The core section, which amounted to approximately a quarter of the text in Gamma and Beta’s article and almost half the text of the Alpha and Beta article, was identical, word for word. Yet neither article cited the other. The articles, both appearing during the current year, were in different refereed journals.

Adding to my uneasy feeling in this situation, I had communicated with Professor Gamma early in his career about a similar issue. In a private note about 15 years ago, I had warned him about publishing multiple articles that rehashed the same material, without significant new information, ideas, or insight. My graduate students had called the original problem to my attention when they were doing research for an assignment that happened to fall within the particular publishing focus that Gamma, then an assistant professor and now holder of an endowed chair, had chosen.

Examining this situation crystallized two issues in my mind — one immediate and the other more general. For the immediate issue, I explored some sources in the social science literature that identified the problem as possible “self-plagiarism,” which on first impression sounds like an oxymoron. As a matter of intellectual ownership, how could one plagiarize one’s own ideas?

Further exploration led me to ethical codes. Specifically, the American Educational Research Association (AERA), which would seem to encompass or at least overlap with Professor Gamma’s specialized field, includes in its ethical code guiding standards for intellectual ownership. The AERA standard specific to disclosing the publication history of articles provides that “if the present article is substantially similar in content and form to the one previously published, that fact should be noted and the place of publication cited.” More specifically, the Style Manual of the American Psychological Association, the required guide for the two refereed journals that contained the articles in question, not only refers authors in the social and behavioral sciences to the APA Ethics Code but also warns, “authors should not submit manuscripts that have been published elsewhere in substantially similar form or with substantially similar content.”

Further, the APA’s Manual states: “Just as researchers do not present the work of others as their own (plagiarism), they do not present their own previously published work as new scholarship (self-plagiarism).” Explaining that limited duplication without attribution, such as “describing the details of an instrument” in the methods section, is permissible to avoid extensive self-referencing, the Manual identifies the central criterion: “the core of the new document must constitute an original contribution to knowledge.” In the APA’s Code of Conduct, which the Manual cross-references, the relevant standard prohibits “publish[ing], as original data, data that have been previously published …. [without] proper acknowledgment.”

Exploring relevant writings more broadly, I found that the issue of self-plagiarism is better understood in terms of specific parsing within the more general concept of plagiarism. First, as Scanlon has explained, as a subset of plagiarism, self-plagiarism poses the problem of imposture, not theft. Here, imposture refers to padding, churning, over-crediting, or, in Bird’s words, “implying that the author is more productive than is actually the case.” Next, as a subset of self-plagiarism, the issue in the two articles was not — within in Roig’s four-part differentiation — “duplicate publication,” but rather “text recycling.” The primary causes would seem to be the same for all of these variations: 1) the preeminence of publication for academic advancement, and 2) what Scanlon characterized as “slipshod peer review.”

However, text recycling is a grayer area than is duplicate publication, in terms of both ethical propriety and legal copyright. The blurry boundary for text recycling as an ethical matter appears to be not only the amount but also the nature of the material duplicated without attribution.

For example, repeating significant parts of the literature review or the methodology is far less shady than is doing the same for the core, i.e., the results, of the study. The common instances where the authors have ceded intellectual ownership to the journal trigger the overlapping legal issue of copyright. In such cases, the doctrine of fair use is directly applicable. For the margins not the extremes, erring on the side of self-citation would appear to be advisable. The Journal of International Business code of ethics for authors provides a balanced and specific solution: “If exact sentences or paragraphs that appear in another work by the Author are included in the manuscript, the material should be put in quotation marks and appropriately cited in a way that does not compromise the double blind [i.e., reviewers not knowing the identity of the author and vice versa] review process.”

The larger issue concerns the fields within schools and colleges of education, or even the larger areas of the humanities and behavioral/social sciences within academia, that qualify as a profession. Based on the classical models of divinity, medicine, and law, it is generally agreed that one of the essential ingredients of a profession is the issuance and enforcement of standards of expertise and conduct. Respected senior members of the profession take the lead in these defining self-regulation and -policing functions.

Do professions outside academia accompany proscription with enforcement? For example, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), where intellectual property rights are a core value, not only specifically proscribes self-plagiarism, explicitly defined as “verbatim or near verbatim reuse of significant portions of one’s own copyrighted work in subsequent papers where the authors have not disclosed in the subsequent paper the previous publication.” The organization also specifies an enforcement procedure starting with posting a “Notice of Self Plagiarism based on the investigation on the ACM Digital Library’s citation page” and followed by a series of escalating penalties.

In any event, in the higher education field of education, the AERA’s code of ethics anticlimactically ends with this caveat: “it is not the intention of the Association to monitor adherence to the Standards or to investigate allegations of violations of the Code.” The APA’s ethical code not only is more explicit with regard to self-plagiarism but also includes an enforcing ethics committee. However, the code, as compared with the more specific standards of the APA’s publication manual, apply only to psychologists, and the primary sanction is termination of APA membership, although notification to other bodies, such as licensing boards, is also included.

Academia tends to profess loudly, and even on occasion strictly enforce, its credo about plagiarism and other academic moral injunctions against violations of academic norms, such as cheating, with regard to students. However, for ourselves, professionalism seems to end with professing.

For us, rationalizations abound. Within such views, self-plagiarism emerges more like an ethical imperative than an ethical negative; we are facilitating dissemination of our ideas for reinforcement within our audience or for extension to new audiences. James M. Lang's essay in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education defends student recycling within a course by condoning faculty recycling in conference presentations; yet, the two are not the same; neither is at the formal level of publication; and self-citation would be curative for conference papers. At the philosophical level, postmodernists’ defense of self plagiarism waxes into what Scanlon calls “a theoretical hall of mirrors” as follows: “By recycling their own texts, writers deny, paradoxically, the very notion of textual ownership.”

Applying these two levels of concern to the originating incident, it would seem that something has gone wrong here. According to Professor Gamma, whom I contacted based on my previous communication and his central role, 1) the longer, Gamma & Beta article was first, with Professor Beta writing the part at issue; 2) Professor Beta subsequently submitted the article, co-written with Professor Alpha, to the other journal, and 3) Professor Gamma, as an editor at the second journal, was admittedly “lax” in not checking it more closely. If Professor Gamma’s account is correct, Professor Beta merits the specific self-plagiarism charge of text recycling in light of the significant amount and core nature of the duplication without citation. I received no reply upon requesting Beta’s side of the story.

In the absence of a governing professional organization with an enforcing arm, the only available avenue for a determination, with due process and possible sanctions, would be notification to the administration of Professor Beta’s institution. In contrast, depending on whether this account is true and what Professors Gamma and Alpha each knew or had reason to know of the other’s co-written article, they would merit corresponding consideration in terms of possible plagiarism or self-plagiarism.

In the cases of all three faculty members, the reality is that this questionable conduct will, in all likelihood, not be subject to investigation or reprobation. The initial reasons include the intersection of two measure of success in the professoriate. The first is the emphasis on scholarship as measured by quantity of peer-reviewed journal articles. The second is the peer review process that, especially within the sub-specializations continuing to proliferate in academia, is not sufficiently effective — and is sometimes incestuously infected — in terms of screening out, much less sanctioning, self-plagiarism and even plagiarism.

The ultimate reasons are that notifying the central administration of professor Alpha, Beta, and/or Gamma’s institution would seem to be draconian and, in any event, outside the strict bounds of the true professoriate. Conversely, notification to the dean or, more clearly within the autonomy and expertise of the academic peerage, the department chair is not likely to be effective; indeed, Professor Alpha serves in one of these capacities for Professor Beta.

Similarly, would Gamma’s dean or department head — given the relative paucity of chaired professorships in this non-lucrative area of academia — be likely to investigate and sanction this recently endowed professor? In either choice for notification, what would the likely blowback be in terms of the success, including peer-review journal decisions, for the whistleblower? The bottom line is that this situation is an ethical dilemma. Perhaps the best choice, as a matter of academic freedom, is to publish my analysis for review and comment — without, of course, plagiarizing myself by recycling it elsewhere.

Perry A. Zirkel
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Perry A Zirkel is the University Professor of Education and Law at Lehigh University.

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