Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What is plagiarism?

Oh, please; don’t start this good vs. evil shit. This isn’t Star Wars. People on all ends of the spectrum fuck up.

The UC Berkeley Campus Code of Student Conduct defines plagiarism as
the use of intellectual material produced by another person without acknowledging its source.
It includes:

  1. Copying from the writings or works of others into one's academic assignment without attribution, or submitting such work as if it were one's own;
  2. Using the views, opinions,or insights of another without acknowledgement; or
  3. Paraphrasing the characteristic or original phraseology, metaphor, or other literary device of another without proper attribution
The English Department adds:
Unacknowledged use of the words or ideas of others from any medium (print, digital, or otherwise) is plagiarism.

Plagiarism is the appropriation of another's words or ideas without acknowledgement.

The recent controversy over white feminists appropriating the work of feminists of color reminds me of a student I once had who very blatantly plagiarized a good two thirds of a paper.

When I discussed it with em, e claimed that e thoroughly understood the definition of plagiarism outlined above, and that e had also read and agreed with the section on plagiarism that I'd assigned from Diana Hacker's Rules for Writers. I put a few questions to the student about it, and e seemed to understand what, in theory, constituted plagiarism.

But when I brought up eir own practices, I met with something mindboggling. E freely and cheerfully explained how e had read the Cliffs Notes on the text in question, taken notes on it, including exact phrasing, and plunked things from the aforementioned notes directly into eir paper. These acts were unambiguously plagiarism, even if the words and ideas did take a brief detour through the student's notebook. But the student adamantly denied that e had committed plagiarism.

Finally, after much painful discussion, I realized that it was the word plagiarism that the student could not accept. This student simply felt that plagiarism was something that Evil People did, and that as long as one was not Lord Voldemort, whatever one was doing could not be plagiarism.

A similar thing happens all the time with racism: people who have had the life-long privilege to rarely or never be subjected to ethnic or racial oppression believe that racism is a thing that Evil People engage in, so that joke they told or that comment they made simply couldn't be racist, and dang, lighten up, get a sense of humor! Then we hear that our culture is oppressive to white people because they live in mortal fear of being labeled a racist. Such reasoning presupposes that it is worse to be called a racist than to be called by a racist slur. Because, you know, white people get lynched for being suspected of racism. Really!

My friends, let us call a spade a spade. Plagiarism is plagiarism. Racism is racism. Even if you left your swirly black cloak at home.


Jess Nevins said...

I've had this problem with students as well. Not often, but enough.

However, I tend to avoid the P word *not* from a reluctance to hurt their feelings but because--in my experience, I hasten to add--it tends to become what the students obsess over, and they concentrate on that word rather than on listening to what I'm telling them and learning from the experience. "You copied this person's work and didn't credit them the way you were supposed to, and that's why you got an F" still gets the message across and doesn't enflame their emotions as much

Natalia said...

Jess, does your institution not have a disciplinary policy in place? UCB has one -- a good one, I think. Students have the option to take responsibility for plagiarism and have a report placed in a sealed file. The instructor determines sanctions, and the file is never revisited unless another report is submitted, at which time it's brought before Student Judicial Affairs. The goal is to keep students who have plagiarized from ever doing it again. But of course it depends on the student admitting that the acts that they have committed are plagiarism. Which is one thing I want them to learn from the experience, in any case.